President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats have spent the better part of this year juggling legislation on health care and climate change.
The two monster initiatives would be significant accomplishments if either one could pass, let alone both. But for now, each remains a long way from the finish line as Republicans and some Democrats push back against bills that have big price tags and questionable public support.
Obama will try to reclaim control over the story line tonight with his fourth prime time press conference since taking office in January, part of a media campaign to keep momentum going on the top pieces of his legislative agenda.
It won't be easy. Advocates for the two bills wonder if the combined pitch has zapped away each item's own strength. And there is also the Republican Party, which is working to score political points by packaging the entire Obama agenda as a grab for big government.
"It doesn't scare me at all," Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said yesterday when asked about the GOP attacks against the health care and climate bills. "There's blood in the water on everything you do here," she added. "We've got a whole party that is trying to do one thing, and that is bring the Democrats down. And that's what they do. So almost everything we do, there's blood in the water."
Sources tracking the two debates count several similarities between the climate and health bills. Both have been moved back and forth at the top of the congressional schedule this year. Both have had deadlines for floor action surrounding a recess (July 4th for the House climate bill, the August break for health care).
Both have some of the same political dynamics, including increasingly dire warnings about the costs of action and inaction. Both feature some of the same key players and committees, from House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
And both appear on track to dominate the fall calendar on Capitol Hill, where Democratic leaders can expect to get some version of the same question over and over again about which bill would they rather see cross the finish line first.
"That's a -- what is it called? -- a Hobson's choice," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters yesterday after being asked to pick between climate and health care. "I won't have to do that."
Looking for Obama's signal
Going forward, some senators say the White House will be instrumental in deciding which bill should have the top billing.
"I think so much depends on where the administration is going to be pushing and spending their political capital," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). "What we're seeing right now from the White House is a very aggressive push on health care. Will they split their time in September and be pushing some folks on health care and some folks on climate change? I don't think you can do that. I think you've got to pick and choose."
David Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser, insisted in a June interview that there is no competition between the two top-tier items.
"Obviously, health care is in high gear right now, and we want to move that forward," he said. "But both of these are going to have a lasting impact on our future competitiveness, on our future as a country. So they're two valued children. We're not going to put one above the other."
But Obama and his Democratic allies have had to make decisions about which bill to move on first.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went with climate. She scored a nail-biter of a floor victory last month that required help from eight Republicans while forcing some of her own moderates to take difficult votes.
Indeed, many in the Democratic caucus wanted Pelosi to start first with health care, arguing that it remains a higher priority for the American public.
"I think it's the wrong time for a cap and trade," Rep. Artur Davis, a candidate for Alabama governor in 2010, told E&E in May. "I think health care is achievable. It's doable. And when I move around my district, and my state, and people ask me what is Congress going to do to fix health care. They don't frankly ask me what Congress is going to do to fix climate change."
Frank Maisano, a lobbyist for the electric utility and petroleum refinery industries, said Pelosi and the House Democrats also gave encouragement to their opponents by forcing the floor debate before the July 4th recess.
"The bludgeoning the climate bill took on the House side, to get the squeaky vote that it got, that was the first cut in the fighter that put a little blood in the water," said Maisano, a principal at Bracewell & Giuliani, a Washington, D.C., law firm.
For many House Democrats, one of the biggest concerns as they voted on the climate bill was whether the Senate would sidestep the issue altogether and leave them vulnerable on a measure that won't ever become law.
Boxer tried to give House Democrats cover before the vote by promising a markup in her committee before the August recess. But she has since backed away from that schedule and now won't be introducing legislation until early September.
One of her explanations for the delay: Too many senators in the middle of the climate debate are focused on health care.
'Why Obama's numbers are going down'
As for health care, committee votes on both ends of the Capitol started earlier this month. And like climate, the legislative process has seen its share of fits and starts. The uncertainty over the health debate has prompted sources on and off Capitol Hill to calculate how a loss could influence the climate bill.
Given the power of centrist Democrats on both issues, some say that rejection of health care could embolden them to push for changes on climate bill that drive the left overboard. Republicans with a taste of victory could also use the win as a springboard to topple other pieces of Obama's agenda.
"It makes it more difficult," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week when asked about the prospects for global warming if faced with a defeat on health care. "But I think they are two separate issues. Maybe two different fates. I hope they both pass."
"I think it can float both ways," explained Chelsea Maxwell, a former aide to retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) who helped write last year's climate bill. Whoever wins, she said, would feel emboldened to push for a victory on the other issue.
Maisano said that a loss on health care -- or the resolution of the issue altogether -- would shift attention entirely back to climate change. "That'd be good for folks who want to push this and want to put momentum on people," he said. But it also could come with downsides.
"If you shined a bright spotlight on this issue, there's some things people wouldn't like to see," Maisano said.
On the hunt for political points, Republicans have taken to lumping all of Obama's agenda together, from health care to global warming to the $787 billion stimulus package the president signed in February.
"That's why Obama's numbers are going down," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). "Because the people are saying, 'We're in the soup and this guy is talking about health care reform that's going to increase the cost of health care in this country.' Everyone knows that it will. He wants to go ahead and get involved in a cap-and-trade program that's going to increase everyone's utility rates. They know they're going to go up and they're saying, 'Are those guys in Washington crazy? Don't they understand this?'"
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Democrats are "without adult supervision" when it comes to health care, and he sees similarities to the climate debate. "I think cap and trade is not much further along as far as being thoughtful than health care is," he said. "I think they're both certainly in jeopardy, and certainly both deserve a whole lot more thought than what we've seen so far."
Murkowski said she is not so sure how Democrats and Obama can keep up the pace come the fall, when both bills are likely to still be moving through the congressional meat grinder.
"I think they know they've got to let everyone have a breather," she said. "You've got two very, very significant issues back to back, and I think there has to be a consideration on how you advance that from the political perspective."
Yet even some of the very moderate Democrats who Obama still needs to court -- on health care and climate change -- say that all is not lost for the president's agenda.
"Each is a standalone bill," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). "But they're both competing for the same time frame. So, one has to obviously watch that. But if there's a will for legislation here, there always seems to be a way."
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