TAKEOVER A Change in Climate

Internal Rifts Cloud Democrats' Opportunity on Warming

Rep. John D. Dingell, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, had expected to lead the debate over global warming  --  until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed a new panel.
Rep. John D. Dingell, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, had expected to lead the debate over global warming -- until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed a new panel. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The House Democrats had not quite finished their "100 hours" agenda when they met in the Capitol basement Thursday morning, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was already looking ahead. As her colleagues ate bagels and turkey sausage, she warned that their next challenge would be a lot tougher than popular issues such as student loans and ethics reforms. For her next act, she planned to take on global warming.

Democrats, she explained, had to show a sense of urgency about the carbon emissions that threaten the planet, and so she was creating a select committee on energy independence and climate change to communicate that urgency. The new committee, she said, would help the caucus speak with one voice -- even if it trampled the turf of existing committees.

Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), a close Pelosi ally, raised his gavel and asked whether anyone had anything else to say, in the same pro forma way that question is posed at weddings. "One, do I hear anything?" he asked. "Two do I hear, 2 1/2 do I hear, three." Emanuel's gavel came down. "The caucus meeting is over."

Pelosi's power play demonstrated her seriousness about climate, a complex issue that may be as legislatively difficult and politically treacherous as health care was in the 1990s. But it also reflected her seriousness about imposing discipline on her caucus and preventing a return to the days when long-serving Democratic chairmen ran their committees as independent fiefdoms.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (Mich.) -- the longest-serving House member and a legendary defender of his committee's prerogatives as well as the carbon-emitting auto industry of his home state -- had made it clear that he expected to lead the party's global-warming debate in a rather leisurely fashion. Pelosi was end-running him.

When "Big John" chaired Energy and Commerce from 1981 to 1995, the prickly power broker displayed a prominent photo of the Earth to illustrate his view of the panel's jurisdiction. Now the photo is back, along with Dingell's determination to resist interference. A few hours after Pelosi presented her plan to the caucus, Dingell convened the 31 Democrats on Energy and Commerce. Predictably, he saw Pelosi's new committee as a recipe for duplication, incompetence and the suppression of democracy.

Less predictably, Dingell was supported by a longtime Energy and Commerce rival, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California liberal who agrees with Pelosi about global warming and persuaded her to co-sponsor his own aggressive climate bill last year, but who also wants her to respect her chairmen. That's because he chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he plans to hold hearings on his bill. At the Energy and Commerce meeting, he warned that Pelosi might be scheming to write bills out of her own office.

"That's the way the Republicans did it," Waxman said.

Those are fighting words in the new majority, and some Energy and Commerce Democrats are willing to fight. Several with mixed feelings about drastic carbon regulations -- including Rep. Rick Boucher, who represents a coal-heavy Virginia district and chairs the subcommittee on energy and air quality -- discussed working with Republicans to defeat the new committee on the House floor.

The strict emissions cuts that Pelosi supports had no chance in the GOP Congress, but they still face an uphill climb. Carbon-reliant industries including coal, oil, agriculture and manufacturing will resist any strong legislation, a position that will pose serious dilemmas for Democrats in districts where those industries and their unions hold sway. Some representatives of low-income minority districts are also concerned that a climate bill would slap heavy energy costs on their constituents.

Even if Pelosi manages to finagle a bill through the House, there is the problem of the Senate, where global-warming skeptic James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has lost his chairmanship to climate-conscious Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) but has threatened a filibuster. And President Bush seems unlikely to sign anything too far-reaching.

That is why some environmentalists want Pelosi to delay until she can send a bill to a more sympathetic president in 2009, and why some Democrats want her to delay so they can use the issue against Republicans in 2008.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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