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Internal Rifts Cloud Democrats' Opportunity on Warming

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.

"It's a briar patch," said one industry lobbyist. "I can understand why Pelosi wants to hold hearings to show the Democrats care, but I can't believe she really wants to try to legislate."

But Pelosi and her leadership team believe action will be good politics as well as policy, branding climate as a Democratic issue while showing the caucus that recalcitrant chairmen are no longer free to freelance. Pelosi had already warned Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) not to use the Judiciary Committee to try to impeach Bush, and she denied her rival Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) the gavel of the Intelligence Committee. Less than two hours after the mutinous Energy and Commerce meeting, she stood up to Dingell as well, holding a news conference to declare her select committee a done deal.

"It says to the American people, we are about the future," she said.

Act Fast vs. Go Slow

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) is worried about the future on a hotter planet, and the posters in his office show why. There's Glacier National Park, where Inslee believes "there will be no glaciers in 50 years." There's Mount Rainier, where alpine meadows are retreating as higher temperatures push the tree line higher. There's a photo of his 28-year-old son, Connor, skiing down Washington's Stevens Pass; two years ago, there was so little snow on the mountain that Connor could only work on the ski patrol for a few days.

For the first decade of Inslee's congressional career, Republicans controlled Congress, and emissions-reduction rules were about as likely as new gun restrictions or same-sex marriage rights. But now Inslee and many of his colleagues speak with a fervor reminiscent of the GOP revolutionaries who seized the House in 1995 and immediately wanted to shake things up.

"The flat-Earth society has been removed from power," Inslee said. "This opens the door to meaningful change."

Inslee is just a back-bencher on Energy and Commerce, but he is already trying to hash out details of climate change legislation. Last week, he spent an hour on the phone with Duke Energy chief executive Jim Rogers, who has endorsed a limit on carbon emissions. They delved into the details of how a limit could work, how to promote cleaner technologies, how it is easier to sequester carbon in the soil in Indiana than in North Carolina.

Inslee has no patience for the go-slow crowd that thinks Democrats would be smarter to grandstand the climate issue in 2008, then work with an eco-friendlier president in 2009. He wants to get to work.

"This should not be a planning year," he said. "This should not be a debating year. This should be an action year."

Dingell represents the other side of the debate, the side that is quick to point out that overzealous restrictions on emissions could decimate the U.S. economy. He wants to hold extensive hearings on climate change, to investigate the problem, if in fact it is a problem, and what it might cost to try to address it. That is the way he has dealt with issues since he came to Congress during the first Eisenhower administration. He says global warming will be a priority for his committee, but clearly not the only priority.

"We've got Medicaid, Medicare, health insurance, prescription drugs," Dingell said. "We've got leaky underground storage tanks."

Leaky underground storage tanks? When Glacier National Park is melting?

"Superfund isn't being properly administered," he continued. "We have safe drinking water . . . what else?" His chief of staff, former auto lobbyist Dennis Fitzgibbons, mentions telecommunications, and Dingell is back to his list: Net neutrality. Universal service. "We have to address high-definition television, and a similar issue with regard to radio . . . "

Pelosi and her allies may think CO2 is more important than HDTV, but Dingell will not be rushed. He mentions that the politics of carbon are "substantially similar, if not identical" to the politics of the Clean Air Act, which required a decade of debate before it was amended in 1990 to deal with acid rain. He does not mention that his own opposition was the main obstacle to action, or that environmentalists -- who had loved his work on the Endangered Species Act and other wildlife protections -- dubbed him "Tailpipe Johnny" during the acid-rain debate.

Dingell is an older bull now; at 80, he sometimes walks with a cane, and his hearing aid doesn't seem to work as well as it once did. But he is still a formidable figure on the Hill, and he grumbles that it takes time to build consensus.

"I could bring up a bill like that," he said with a snap of his fingers. "It would take about a week, and I could get it on the floor a week or so after that, and I can give you the absolute certainty that it will not become law. I'm not sure you want that, do you?"

But Pelosi draws her power from the Inslees of the caucus, and they believe that the time for deliberation has passed. Inslee is careful to pay homage to Dingell, "one of the most brilliant people I've ever met in public policy, but he rejects the chairman's comparison of global warming to acid rain."

"The challenge we're facing is a hundredfold more critical," Inslee said. "We need to address this on an emergency basis." And he believes that Pelosi, with support from green manufacturers and green evangelicals as well as the usual green groups, will break the logjam on Capitol Hill -- with or without Dingell's help.

"She is willing to make a few omelets, which is to say, break a few eggs," Inslee said.

A Question of Tactics

In the old Congress, with J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as speaker of the House, the "majority of the majority" ruled. Policies were hashed out inside the GOP caucus, which was dominated by conservatives; Hastert's team then pressured the entire caucus to back them. The result was a steady tack to the right -- and eventually, electoral disaster, especially for GOP moderates.

Pelosi has promised a more open and bipartisan process and has said she will not drag her caucus to the left. But global warming could be a telling test. Inslee's support for fast and aggressive legislation to reduce emissions is probably supported by a majority of House Democrats -- but not a majority of Congress.

On the other hand, when Dingell and Boucher talk about building consensus around a moderate bipartisan approach that respects the concerns of industry, the Earth-on-fire crowd suspects a do-nothing approach. The top Republican on Dingell's committee, Rep. Joe L. Barton (Tex.), has done more to block climate legislation than any other House member, with the possible exception of the top Republican on Boucher's subcommittee, Hastert.

"Industry is an important part of the equation," Boucher said.

But there are options beyond Inslee's strong-and-fast and Dingell's modest-and-slow.

Waxman's bill, for example, is extremely strong, mandating an 80 percent cut in emissions by 2050. Waxman is known as a dogged street fighter as well as a dealmaker; after feuding with Dingell for years over acid rain, they forged the compromise that led to the 1990 amendments. But while he believes that global warming may be irreversible if emissions do not start to decline within a decade, he does not see how Democrats can get strict emission limits past Bush. So he seems content to hold hearings that will expose GOP intransigence.

"Quite frankly, this is not a bill that's going to pass in six months, or even two years," he said.

While Waxman is willing to wait for radical change, other Democrats are pushing for lesser reductions with greater speed. For example, five-term Rep. Tom Udall (N.M.) has been lobbying for a "third way" between nothing and a hard-and-fast emissions limit, offering corporations a "safety valve" of modest fees if they cannot meet pollution targets.

Udall comes from a green pedigree -- his father served as interior secretary, and his uncle was a longtime conservationist congressman -- but some environmentalists dismiss his plan as a recipe for inaction. When Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) proposed a similar plan in 2004, the Environmental Defense Fund ran ads criticizing him in his home state.

Still, Udall has enlisted a Republican co-sponsor, Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri, in hopes of engineering a quick compromise. He says the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

"I wrote this bill with the idea that Bush can sign it," he said. "Our idea is to start now."

But as long as Dingell wields his gavel, starting anything might be tough. Last October, Udall approached Dingell in the Democratic cloakroom and handed over some information about his bill. Dingell never got back to him. In an interview in his office, which is dominated by heads of animals he has shot and photos of presidents he has worked with, Dingell recalled his friendships with Udall's father and uncle, but brushed off questions about Udall's bill.

"If I thought it was a good idea, I would have already done it," he said.

Gearing Up for Showdown

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 27 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of global warming, so it's easy to see why Pelosi welcomes a confrontation. That is one reason she asked Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a Bush-bashing environmentalist and a Pelosi loyalist, to lead her new committee. In April 2005, when Bush walked hand in hand with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah after asking him to produce more oil, Pelosi asked Markey to deliver the party's response to Bush's radio address.

"She does believe, along with Iraq, that this is a big issue on which we have to take on the president," Markey said.

Industry lobbyists say they expect to endure a lot of unpleasant climate hearings during this Congress, but they are not too worried about draconian legislation. They do not think the House or the Senate can pass anything too stringent, much less override a Bush veto. And they say their focus groups show that the public's eagerness to do something about global warming droops after hearing warnings of serious economic consequences.

With trillions of dollars at stake, it is reasonable to expect industry-funded ads to raise those alarms, in the vein of the "Harry and Louise" spots that helped sink President Bill Clinton's health-care plans.

"If you're a Democrat in a moderate district, this is not the kind of vote you want to take," said Myron Ebell, director of global-warming policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded think tank. "I think Democrats are really going to disappoint the enviros over the next two years, because all they're going to do is talk."

In fact, it's not clear that environmentalists would be all that disappointed. They believe the public is moving in their direction, as climate-friendly actions by companies such as Wal-Mart and states such as California help build pressure for a national solution. Many of them think two years of hearings could set the stage for a Waxman-style bill that a Democratic president -- or a climate-conscious Republican such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- could sign in 2009.

"If we can get some real facts into the public domain, keep educating the American people, lay down some principles about what kind of bill is acceptable and help get the next Congress ready to act, that would be a success," said Ana Unruh Cohen, a global-warming expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. "You know, Bush is still the president."

And Dingell is still the guy with the gavel. He and Boucher are already planning hearings on global warming, and they have invited former vice president Al Gore to testify. ("Al's a good friend," Dingell said. "So was his father.") But Dingell warns that he is a "fairly fussy, careful legislator."

Pelosi is pushing for action by July 4. She wants to show Americans that Democrats care. And she wants to show Dingell that a new guard is running the show.

"We shouldn't get hung up on procedural matters," Emanuel said. The select committee, he said, is "continuing to remind people this is a different Congress, with different priorities."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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