Former EPW staff director Wheeler discusses Democrats' strategy on climate

As the former Republican staff director of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, Andrew Wheeler was directly involved with last year's vote on the Lieberman-Warner climate bill. How have the Democrats changed their strategy since? What are the key issues to watch as the Senate takes up climate legislation this year? During today's OnPoint, Wheeler, now a senior vice president in the energy and climate change practice at B&D Consulting, gives his take on this year's climate debate and the difficult climb to 60 votes in the Senate.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Andrew Wheeler, former Republican staff director of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and now a senior vice president in the energy and climate change practice at B&D Consulting. Andrew, it's nice to see you again.

Andrew Wheeler: Thank you for having me back.

Monica Trauzzi: Andrew, the tone on energy and climate has changed considerably since your time at Senate EPW. Democrats are pushing hard both on health care and climate and energy this year. As deadlines get pushed further back, is there a scenario where neither gets done? I mean handicap this for us.

Andrew Wheeler: Well, I think there's definitely a scenario where neither gets done. I'm of course, not an expert on the health care, but with the announcement that they're pushing off the floor consideration for health care until September certainly makes that a little bit harder to get done. And it will be interesting to see what happens over the month of August and who gains more of the momentum in the healthcare debate. But that has certainly, I believe, pushed off climate change. You know, most presidents when they come in to office are able to push through one major domestic program in their first year and President Obama has tried to work on both at the same time. I think most of his energies have been on health care. What I've told people on the climate change side is that climate change will become more likely if healthcare does in fact implode and they don't pass health care this year. Then I think most of the administration's energies will be shifted towards climate change and then you might able to see action on climate change at that point.

Monica Trauzzi: So, at this point, the administration has said that both issues are important, but would you say that health care is the more important issue for them to get passed this year?

Andrew Wheeler: Definitely I think so. I think the president has spent much more time on health care than he has on climate change, as well as the Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate. They've put more resources and more time and they certainly talk about health care more than they talk about climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: You were on the front lines of the Lieberman-Warner bill in debate last year.

Andrew Wheeler: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: How have Democrats, and in particular Barbara Boxer, changed their strategy this time around? I mean she took a lot of heat last year for the way that that bill was managed. How are things different this year?

Andrew Wheeler: Well, she did, but last year you have to remember you also had President Bush in the White House. So the Democrats in the Senate knew that the climate bill was not going to go anywhere ultimately. It was not going to be signed into law last year. This year it's different. If they do something, if they act it very well could be signed into law. So I think in particular the moderate Senate Democrats, the 15 to 18 Democrats that have shown some concern about climate change, are looking at this now as just not -- it's not just a debate. It's actually legislating and do we want to legislate on this and how would we want to legislate? As far as Senator Boxer, I think at this point she's said that she's dividing up some of the jurisdiction to the other committees. I think that was a real problem last year. She didn't have the buy-in from any of the other committees or people off of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Now, at the time that the bill went to the floor very few members off of the environment committee had spent any time on the climate change issue. I think there's a difference this year where more people are spending more time or at least they're talking about it. You have hearings going on in other committees and more people are actively engaged in the issue. Now, I do think that they are repeating some of the same mistakes in the environment committee in that they're not really having the hearings that dive into the mechanics of how a climate change program works. They're not having the hearings that look at how an allocation system is set up, how do you run an offset market system? Things like that that I think will have to be done in order to assure moderate Democrats that climate change will not harm their states the way they think that it will at this point.

Monica Trauzzi: So, you're sort of signaling that the climbed to 60 is going to be a tough one and it seems like this is a delicate balance, a dance if you will between keeping the bill environmentally strong so you have the support of the NRDCs of the world, but also being able to get those 60 votes. I mean talk about the challenge that the Democrats have there. Is it possible to get both, to get the votes and also keep the enviros happy?

Andrew Wheeler: I don't think it is unless the enviros just decide that having any kind of bill, no matter what it does, pass is an accomplishment. The problem that you have coming from the House, the Waxman bill into the Senate is that everybody in the House on both sides of the issue in the Democratic caucus were told don't worry, we'll make the bill better in the Senate. The moderates who reluctantly signed on to the bills were told we're trying to make some changes in the Senate and we're trying to make some changes in conference. And on the liberal side of the spectrum of the Democratic Party they were told and environmental groups were told, don't worry, we'll try to make it stronger on the environmental side in the Senate. So, you have two competing groups of senators, the environmental, more liberal side and the more moderate side, who think that they can make the bill better towards their ends and you may end up not pleasing anyone at the end of the day.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what key provisions are you watching as this legislation progresses? I mean what do you think those sticking points are going to be?

Andrew Wheeler: Well, I think the agriculture issues are very big. That was what finally got enough votes in the House to pass the bill on the House floor. But you still didn't see any of the major farm organizations support the legislation. You saw Chairman Peterson support it, but you didn't see the Farm Bureau or the other agricultural groups come out in support. Now, the Senate Environment Committee had a hearing where they had USDA testify and Secretary Vilsack from the Department of Agriculture and he released a study showing that this is not going to be that costly to the farmers. But I don't believe that the farmers or in particular the farm organizations have bought into that idea. So that is a big issue and the second would be the allocation credits. They basically allocated over 100 percent of the credits in the House bill and there are certainly a lot of people that want additional credits. The utilities did very well. Oil and gas and transportation sector did not do that well. Manufacturing didn't do as well as the utility sector. And most of the debate focused on the utility side. But you have to remember that CO2 emissions, roughly a third from manufacturing, utilities, oil, gas, transportation, and they only really focused on the utility side in the House debate.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the Senate sensitive to the mounting pressure from the international community ahead of the Copenhagen meeting?

Andrew Wheeler: I think they are. When I was still on the Senate staff last year I attended the discussions in Poznan, Poland and we had one very interesting meeting with the House and Senate, a bipartisan staff meeting with the staff of the European Union, the staff of the members of the European Union. And we were pressed, at that point the election had already taken place of course, this was in December of last year, we were pressed that the European Union staff people did not want to take an aggressive approach in Copenhagen unless the United States would pass legislation first. And our Democratic counterparts had to say, well, you may only get success in one body or the other. It would be very difficult get a bill passed in time for Copenhagen. So there's very much, I believe starting a year ago, a blame game that is going to start playing out more as we get closer to Copenhagen as far as who will be at fault if something doesn't happen in Copenhagen.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question here. We've heard both sides of the economic argument. The first that cap and trade is going to help the economy inject green jobs into the economy. The second is that cap and trade is actually a tax. Americans are going to be taxed for their energy use. Considering the current economic climate, do you think we're going to see senators who would normally support an environmental bill like this heading into the no column because of pressures from their constituents on the economy?

Andrew Wheeler: Absolutely. You saw that last year when they were reacting just to the gasoline prices. When they brought the bill on the floor a lot of the Democratic senators, lot of the moderate Democrats did not want to be debating climate change when gas prices were so high. We are now looking at extremely high unemployment figures and they're expected to go even higher this fall and the economy is much worse than it was last year. So I think there will be a real reluctance and you see that in some of the comments from some of the moderate Democrats and some of the moderate Republicans. You know, the Republican that they hope to get as a cosponsor, Senator Snowe, said this week that she thinks that the climate change is moving to fast and they need to slow down. You have comments from other Democratic senators who say that we need to be focusing on one or the other and we don't need to be doing climate change in the middle of this recession.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. It will be interesting to watch.

Andrew Wheeler: It will be.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you for coming on the show, nice to see you.

Andrew Wheeler: Thank you, nice to see you again.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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