For Senate, a Climate of Competing Interests
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Environmentalists want a tighter cap on emissions. Electric utilities want a looser one. The nuclear industry wants loan guarantees for new reactors. The AARP wants low electric bills for seniors.
Even God, apparently, wants something from the Senate's climate change bill. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment has pressed for billions to help poor people made worse off by climate change.
The body of the bill hasn't been written, and the health-care debate is still taking up most of Washington's oxygen.
But after the House climate bill proved fertile ground for Washington's lobbyist corps -- it ballooned to 1,427 pages, stuffed with compromises that benefited industries from corn to coal -- a similar effort has begun to influence the Senate, where congressional aides will spend the summer recess drafting legislation.
For now, Democratic leaders say they'd like to write a bill that sets some environmental bars higher than the House version. But the Senate's political math makes that look doubtful. In the House vote, the majority of congressional delegations in 27 states voted against the climate bill. With the House's proportional representation, the bill still passed, but pulling "yea" votes from enough of those states in the Senate could mean watering down some environmental provisions.
Some key senators seem to be treating the House's compromises as a starting place for more. "What they did, we'll keep," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. But on top of that, Harkin said, "We're going to maybe do some other things that would maybe embellish what they did in the House."
In particular, Harkin said, he wants to be more generous with "carbon offset" programs that allow farmers to be paid for no-till agriculture that keeps carbon in the soil. In the House bill, those provisions were made more farmer-friendly in a last-minute compromise with Midwestern Democrats. Some environmental groups said it was already too much of a giveaway.
Senate Democratic leaders say their climate legislation will be built on the same frame as the House's. There will probably be a requirement to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. There will be a "cap and trade" system, in which factories, power plants and other emitters can buy or sell permission slips to pollute. And there will be a requirement for utilities to increase U.S. use of power from "renewable" sources such as wind, sun and plants.
Senate leaders say it will all be assembled by Sept. 18. That's the deadline that Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has set for five committees to pass portions of the bill.
"It's a date that's doable," Reid said in a conference call with reporters last week. "We can't let that slip."
But other legislators wonder if, when the health-care debate finally ends, the Senate will have the stomach or the attention span for another complicated fight. And it remains unclear how much clout President Obama will have left to sway wavering lawmakers.
"It's very hard for Congress to do one big thing, much less do a couple of really big issues at the same time," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), whose state produces coal as well as wind power.