Democrats Face Uphill Climb On Climate Bill

While President Obama spent part of his week overseas trying to re-engage the United States in global efforts to fight climate change, senators on Capitol Hill got down to business on their own legislation.

A climate change bill squeaked through the House last month. Over the years, the Senate has tried and failed to pass a measure. Now the question is whether a 60-vote Democratic supermajority can succeed.

A half-dozen Senate committees have jurisdiction over climate change. But California Democrat Barbara Boxer's panel on the environment and public works is taking the lead.

"I believe that this committee, when the votes are eventually taken on our bill, will reflect our president's attitude, which is 'yes, we can, and yes, we will,' " she says.

But, no, they won't finish a draft by the end of the month as originally planned. Democrats have pushed back their self-imposed deadline and now plan a committee vote at the end of September.

Disproportionate Effect?

Boxer will need that time to win over more than a dozen moderate Democrats who are so far reluctant to support something like what the House has approved. The House climate change bill aims to move the country away from reliance on fossil fuels like coal or oil. The goal is to reduce overall carbon emissions by 17 percent in a decade, and by more than 80 percent by mid-century.

Those are causes of concern for Democrats like Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

"I represent a state where 90 percent of electricity comes from coal," he says. "We are also the fifth-largest oil and gas producer in the country. And so this legislation disproportionately affects the people that I represent, and I tell you, I hear about it when I go home."

The Congressional Budget Office says the House legislation would cost, on average, $175 per family per year. But Conrad says coal-dependent states are likely to see higher costs than coastal ones.

"There's a clear consensus [of what] needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions. The question then becomes: How do you do it? And is the pain — is the cost — fairly distributed?" he says.

Protectionism?

Meanwhile, that emissions cap of 17 percent has been criticized as too low by environmentalists and their Senate supporters — and as too high by moderates like Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who would like to see the cap around 14 percent.

Rust Belt senators like Stabenow also support a House plan to impose tariffs on goods imported from developing countries that fail to cap their emissions. It's an idea that Obama has warned could be seen as protectionism.

"It's not protectionism to have a fair playing field, and that's all we are asking for," Stabenow says.

So Senate Democrats will need support from some Republicans to pass a bill. But most of them have already rejected the centerpiece proposal on carbon emissions — a cap-and-trade system. In other words, the government would set up a market for companies that emit greenhouse gases to buy and trade pollution allowances.

Republican Kit Bond of Missouri plans to take to the Senate floor against the proposed system nearly every day this coming week.

"The American people ... deserve to know how the legislation we consider will impose new energy taxes, kill their jobs, punish the Midwest and South, help China and India and construct a bureaucratic nightmare to implement a carbon cap-and-trade program," he says.

Senate Democrats originally hoped to have something by the end of the summer. But it looks like they will be lucky to have something in time for the president to present at the next global climate change summit in December.

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