Reporters Roundtable

E&E's Samuelsohn, Kaplun discuss impact of health care debate on climate, energy bill

Will the Obama administration's focus on health care reform derail efforts to pass cap-and-trade legislation this year? During today's OnPoint, E&E reporters Darren Samuelsohn and Alex Kaplun discuss prospects for climate and energy legislation in the Senate. They comment on the Senate's timeline for rolling out a bill and explain how the momentum for an international agreement has shifted.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today are E&E Daily reporters Darren Samuelsohn and Alex Kaplun. Darren and Alex, thanks for coming on the show.

Alex Kaplun: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Darren, the House and Senate are back in town with their full focus on health care. Many would argue that climate and energy have taken a backseat to health care. What are you hearing from staffers in the key energy and climate committees on the momentum for climate and energy?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, a few committee staffers actually stayed over the August break and were working on the bill and they would say that if they didn't think the bill was moving they would have probably gone and taken vacations, you know, to someplace cool over the summer break. So they were there and they were working on the bill and they have an upbeat, optimistic tone about it, but I think everybody else who's watching this debate right now is probably looking with some raised eyebrows thinking that there's just no way that climate is really going to get much traction this year. You know, they did put some of the pieces together for the bill, but then they held the bill back, didn't release it as we are expecting right as the Congress returns at the start of the session, but there is the plan to put it out later on this year.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, the president will be addressing a joint session of Congress tonight on health care. It's clearly at the top of the administration's agenda. Is there enough political will to get both done? I mean if the Democrats have to make some serious concessions on healthcare, are they going to be as willing to work on climate?

Alex Kaplun: To kind of state the obvious, I think it really matters on the politics of the health care debate and sort of where the Obama administration's political standing is at the end of it, how Democrats feel about their reelection chances, that kind of thing. If they somehow come out of it feeling pretty good, Obama's approval rating is still high, then, yeah, I think they could say this is our time to kind of take a crack at climate change and energy. I mean if they take a beating or if the health care bill fails and it's just kind of a disaster I don't know if there's going to be the stomach among Senate Democrats in particular to sort of wage another very similar fight. I mean they're obviously very different issues, but the tone of the politics that we've seen is very, very similar. I just don't know if they're going to want to do that twice in three months.

Monica Trauzzi: Any sense on how long the health care debate will play out and is there a scenario where they can sort of juggle both health care and climate at the same time in some of these committees?

Alex Kaplun: I think it will be a while on the health care debate. I mean there's not a bill in either the House or the Senate and even though leadership is very optimistic these things take a long time to get through, especially a bill this massive. So I don't think we're going to see a bill any time in the next couple of weeks or anything like that. I don't know that they're going to want to juggle the two things at the same time. There are some key members, like Max Baucus in the leadership who have to be involved in both issues and I just don't know if they're going to be able to negotiate on both things at the same time. It really probably will be a situation where health care is going to happen or not happen, after that they're going to make a decision on what they want to do with climate and how far they want to push it and that kind of thing.

Monica Trauzzi: Darren, you alluded to this earlier, EPW chairwoman, Boxer, has pushed back the deadline for the rollout of her climate bill in her committee. So what new timeline are we looking at for EPW and then also for the full Senate on climate?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, they're going to be coming back and talking about that this week and trying to figure out exactly what the schedule looks like. I mean there was a very ambitious schedule right now that we were expecting where they wanted to mark up this bill before the end of the month. Now it looks like October and November before Thanksgiving, kind of the next six or seven weeks, are going to be really telling in terms of where this bill goes. I mean Boxer can move this bill out that the Environment and Public Works Committee without any problem. Really, the whole issue here, I mean the reason why this bill hasn't moved yet is because it's a product of getting 60 votes in the full Senate. And that's going to happen in Harry Reid's office, it's going to happen on the floor, and if they try and collect the members beyond the environment committee, you know, the Blanche Lincolns and the other swing vote Democrats, Ben Nelson and others like that, try and bring them on board. So they're going to be working on all these individual issues and as they work on them, whether it be nuclear power or cost containment or international trade, those are going to happen beyond Senator Boxer. And in terms of the timing and when this all happens, I mean it could happen between now and Thanksgiving, but it really is all set behind the health care debate and now we're hearing rumors of the financial reform package moving forward and putting that in front of climate change as well. Senator Lieberman talked about that today actually, just coming out and saying that financial reform is right there. Robert Gibbs last week talked about that as well. So clearly, the agenda is kind of shifting right now for the entire Congress.

Monica Trauzzi: And there's been some talk about splitting the bill if it doesn't look like they're going to be able to get those 60 votes. Would that be a good move on the Democrats part if they did sort of try to pass some energy provisions and then punt cap and trade to next year?

Darren Samuelsohn: I think that would be very difficult to do. I think your Nancy Pelosis, your Henry Waxmans who passed the House bill wrote the bill together combined with one big package in mind. If you start to take out these energy provisions you'd probably have to rewrite a House bill. You would be dealing with the environmentalists who would be saying, no, let's keep this all together. So there's going to be a push. You're hearing this from some moderate Democrats, you know, let's just move energy now. But I guess time and time again they've moved energy bills in the past and tried to stick climate change onto them. That's what you saw in 2003 and 2005, so here we have the opposite kind of happening where you have the climate bill and people are trying to pull the energy stuff off.

Alex Kaplun: And just a quick note, I mean from a political standpoint, I don't know what splitting the bill really gets you. I mean the closer you get to elections things are harder to pass; certainly they're not easier to pass. So sort of punting on the part that's already hard to pass and hoping that as you get closer to election day it's going to get you more senators that are going to be on your side from the perspective of Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, I don't know why that would pan out necessarily.

Monica Trauzzi: So, if you guys had to handicap the prospects for a bill this year, what are your thoughts Darren?

Darren Samuelsohn: The conventional wisdom had been maybe a 30 percent chance that we were hearing sort of going into the August break that this bill had of becoming law. You know, people were talking that it had dropped down to about 10 percent. Well, now with health care surging to the top and with financial reform coming up there and with Boxer and Kerry punting, but you've got to keep in mind that there is momentum that's sort of been pushed all year. I mean I don't think anybody really thought that the House would pass this bill before July 4 and it would be where it is now in the Senate. You have the EPA regulations, you have Copenhagen, there are so many other things that are focused on this and then as well, I mean in terms of politically, this is probably the greenest Congress the Democrats are going to ever get. So to think that maybe after the 2010 elections it's going to get better, that's probably not the case. You know, at least at this point of time, it looks like the Republicans are going to pick up some seats in the 2010 election and we're talking a year away now. But in future Congresses Obama, headed into his own reelection in 2012, it's not going to get any easier.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, does the bill have legs?

Alex Kaplun: I still think it does. I mean, again, it really depends on what happens to the Obama administration approval ratings and sort of Congress' feeling after the health care debate. I'm with Darren; I don't think the chances are very good we're going to have a bill this year. I think they're going to punt most of the serious work until early 2010 and try to get it done then.

Monica Trauzzi: Van Jones stepped down earlier this week as the Green Jobs Czar, any impact on the overall push for green jobs in our economy and also the push for climate change? Does this have any significance?

Alex Kaplun: I don't think it has much. I mean for the public at large he wasn't a very high-profile figure and his job was sort of undefined to begin with, so I don't think it jeopardized any kind of legislative momentum. I do think where there's one issue is the whole climate bill is basically the Obama administration saying, "Look, trust us. We're going to put in this regulatory scheme and it's going to help the environment, help deal with our job situation." For people to buy that they need to have some kind of faith and some kind of trust in the government and if that keeps getting undermined and if there's any more kind of fallout, similar to the Van Jones thing, then I think…again, it's more of an issue of approval rating rather than legislative momentum or sort of details like that.

Monica Trauzzi: Darren, final question here. Looking ahead to the December U.N. meeting in Copenhagen, has the momentum for that decreased at all for an international agreement and is the U.S. delegation sort of shifting their tone and their focus and trying to manage expectations for what might be coming out of the Senate this year?

Darren Samuelsohn: I think Obama's people have been trying to manage expectations since they came in office in January. You know, getting an actual law signed by December has been ambitious to say the least, that you could get a bill through the Senate primarily. Going forward you can tell that what Todd Stern and what the Obama people will have in Copenhagen is a House passed bill. They're going to have some sense of where the EPA regulations are going. And then we have the news out of Beijing that the United States and China might come together with some sort of bilateral agreement. We don't really know the details of that and everyone will be watching very closely to see how stringent that is, whether it's binding, whether you can actually measure what China might be agreeing to do with the United States. So, the United States is going to put everything on the table and really try and propel talks forward. No doubt everyone in the world is watching what's happening in the United States Senate right now too. So there's going to be this interesting nexus come Copenhagen. Everyone from Washington will probably be traveling over to Copenhagen and presumably will put things down for a couple of weeks, go to Copenhagen and try and explain what the U.S. position is. And then you have the new Japanese government coming out with its ideas. There is the sense from Yvo de Boer, the U.N. Secretary, that there is some momentum right now and the other thing he's always been trying to manage expectations about is that Copenhagen is not the end all, be all. I mean this is going to be a framework within the details to be worked out at future U.N. meetings. So by no means is Copenhagen the make or break too.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, lots to watch over the next couple of months. Thank you both for coming on the show.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

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

[End of Audio]



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