In Las Vegas, the house always wins. In Washington, the House isn't as lucky.
A carefully crafted compromise on climate change that narrowly passed in the House last June has been stuck for almost a year in the Senate. Now, with three senators set to unveil their own bill Monday and a floor vote possible this spring or early summer, House lawmakers are wondering whether there will be a significant effort to negotiate major differences between the two proposals or if they will be asked to simply approve the Senate version.
There is no guarantee that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can even notch 60 votes to pass such a sweeping measure during a midterm election year. But if he does, some House Democrats say they would not be surprised if they were asked to buckle in conference negotiations.
"That's what the Senate always does to us," said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who voted last year for the House bill (H.R. 2454) but who has been forced onto the defensive in his Houston-area district ever since, where constituents in the oil and gas sector did not get everything they had requested.
Several major differences are expected between the House and Senate bills, such as a carbon pricing system that deals with various sectors of the economy in different ways, rather than the House's all-inclusive approach. A scaled-back carbon-pricing plan opens the door to lawmakers close to the major oil companies, which originally came up with the idea as a way to avoid being included in a large, economywide cap-and-trade system.
The Senate bill is also expected to include language to promote offshore oil and gas drilling, and help with the expansion of nuclear power. Moderate House Democrats who struggled with last year's climate vote may find those changes appealing, especially if provisions are added that sell back home to a public increasingly open to new energy exploration and also if it puts a hard clamp on the global warming program's costs.
The Senate sponsors, John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), hope their compromises can win over Republicans and major industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which loudly opposed the House bill. But looking across the Capitol, the senators say any talk of a final compromise with the House is premature while they remain knee-deep in negotiations to build their own successful coalition.
"I have fantasies of reaching that point," Lieberman said last month. "Or as my mother would say, 'That should be our biggest problem.'"
"At this point, with something that is this complicated, you have to take it one step at a time," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is leading efforts to help manufacturing state Democrats on trade, economic costs and other industry-friendly ideas.
Still, the conference question looms, especially given the dwindling time that is left before everything must start all over again in a new Congress that election pundits predict will include more Republicans, if not a complete switch in party control.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week he would like to maintain "regular order" on the climate and energy bill, citing the bruising health care debate that culminated last month when the House adopted the Senate's proposal with a few key tweaks handled through the fast-track budget reconciliation process.
"My inclination would be to go to conference and work out the differences between the bills," Hoyer said.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored the House bill with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), also is holding firm to the idea the House would have a say in any bill that makes it out of the Senate negotiations.
"I think the bill may be different, and then in the conference committee we can work to find a final formula," said Markey, who met with Kerry and Waxman last week. "Their goal is to find the 60 votes that are needed. I am going to leave it to Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman to find a formula that is necessary to accomplish that goal."
House Republicans are doubtful the Senate can even get 60 votes on their climate bill. But if Reid does pull it off, they predict House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would delay the final conference negotiations until after midterm elections to avoid forcing her members to take what has already been dubbed a politically difficult vote.
"I bet it's a lame duck," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, a recent addition to the House GOP leadership team. "I think the calculus is: Does it help them politically to have the vote before the elections or is it something they so believe in, they want to get done regardless, they do it after the election. I think that might be easier for them."
Hoyer did not say what the House's timing would be on a climate bill if the Senate can pass its version. But he did confirm he expected Congress would be back after the November elections for a lame-duck session, and he would not rule out the prospect of completing the climate bill then.
"Let's see what the Senate does," Hoyer said. "If the Senate does that [passes a bill] and we don't get to it before, sure that's possible."
More vote counting
The fate of Senate negotiations over energy and climate legislation appears to open up several new doors should it make its way back to the House.
Pelosi reached 218 votes last June by building her coalition around the heavily populated coasts and the geographically diverse Energy and Commerce Committee. Since then, many House Democrats have come under fire back home from Republicans who have blasted the bill as an unwieldy expansion of government that cannot be afforded following a recession.
She also will face defections among the eight Republicans who helped her get the Waxman-Markey bill across the finish line.
But some of the Senate deals that Reid and others are expected to cut could also help Pelosi pick up "yes" votes from some of the 44 House Democrats who last year opposed the Waxman-Markey bill.
House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), for example, voted "no" because the legislation did not do enough on oil and gas drilling. And Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo), the older brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, questioned the economic wisdom last June in pushing climate legislation but now says he wants to give energy companies regulatory certainty from U.S. EPA while also avoiding the House's sweeping cap-and-trade proposal.
"We need to make sure that coal is treated right," Salazar said last week. "We need to look at other options. Cap and trade is so complicated. A lot of folks in my district are saying we'd rather live with a carbon tax."
Asked if he could support a climate bill if it got through a conference, Salazar said, "Maybe. I'll have to look at it."
Several other House Democrats said they liked the Senate's move toward a different kind of climate proposal that did not fold petroleum refiners into the system with power plants and major manufacturers.
"I voted for the House bill and spoke for it because of the compromises," said Rep. Green, an Energy and Commerce panel member. "I want to see what the Senate does. Generally, it sounds like they're doing much better."
Senate politics, which may require Reid to win over about five Republican votes, also make some House Democrats feel better about the legislative prospects.
"If they move a bill, I think there'd be some possibility something would happen," said House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who successfully pushed for his own suite of farm-friendly concessions throughout the House process.
"If it meets with the acceptance of 60-plus members of the Senate, I think the prospects of it receiving a good audience here are good," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), another crucial negotiator during last year's House debate. "Now, that doesn't necessarily say we'd approve it all. But the prospect is it'd receive a good audience."
Pelosi may even be able to find more support from the left if she is pushing for the climate bill's final enactment, potentially giving Obama another big domestic victory. Some of the Democratic opponents the last time around include Rep. Pete Stark of California, who long ago advocated for a carbon tax, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the 2004 and 2008 presidential candidate who said the legislation was too weak.
But Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill also need to be mindful they do not tip the scales too far in the opposite direction.
Just as Senate Democrats from the East Coast are warning of too many industry concessions on offshore drilling, all nine of Florida's House Democrats could bolt should the Senate give away too much there too. "I'll be the last person standing against drilling offshore," Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), the only House Democrat who missed the June floor vote, said last fall when the idea of more offshore drilling first surfaced.
House GOP support also remains a big question mark. For starters, Rep. John McHugh of New York has since joined the Obama administration as secretary of the Army, and two other former Republican supporters -- Reps. Mike Castle of Delaware and Mark Kirk of Illinois -- have drawn conservative ire as they try to run for the open Senate seats once held by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
"God only knows what will be in it based on all I'm hearing," Castle said last week of the Senate climate negotiations. But he also left open some wiggle room to support the legislation if it makes it back to the House.
"The Senate may write a bill that's more conducive to a 'yes' vote than the House bill was," Castle said.
Several House Republicans said they do not doubt the Democrats' desire to pass the climate bill. "You wonder whether they can muster the votes here for any kind of cap and trade," Walden said. "But the Obama machine and the Pelosi army are not to be underestimated, even if it's the demise of more of their members, which I think it would be."
"If the Democrats want to drive another nail in their coffin, I guess they could pass a job-killing climate change bill," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a skeptic on global warming science who serves as the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, the chairman of the Democratic Caucus Committee, described last spring's House climate vote as akin to "herding cats." He said last week he does not expect anything to change -- assuming there is a next time.
"It all depends on the energy components in the bill," Larson said. "To the extent there's bipartisan agreement and that remains to be seen, hope springs eternal. It'll be a heavy lift, but I don't think there's too many bills that haven't been a heavy lift."