What's Next: Finance Bill?

The health-care bill is signed, sealed and delivered as President Obama promised on the campaign trail. But what about his other pledges? Guy Raz looks at three big issues still on Obama's agenda — financial regulation, immigration and climate change. And he discusses the prospects for each with NPR's Audie Cornish, Tribune newspapers reporter Peter Nicholas and Chris Joyce of NPR's Science Desk.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of cheering)

RAZ: President Obama signing the landmark health care legislation this past week. To get it passed, Democrats and the president took a calculated risk. They went big and they went alone. So what does it mean for the rest of the president's domestic agenda? For example, an overhaul of the financial industry or immigration policy or a climate and energy bill.

We begin the hour, we hope, with some answers to those questions. This past week, Senator John McCain told a Phoenix radio show that Republicans are too angry with Democrats to even consider bipartisanship.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): There will be no cooperation for the rest of this year. They had poisoned the well in what they have done and how they have done it.

RAZ: McCain was referring to the Democrats' use of the reconciliation process to pass the health care bill. Under Senate rules, reconciliation can't be used again this year, so Democrats will have to find some Republicans to back their other pieces of legislation.

One of which is a plan to overhaul the financial industry, a proposal that NPR's Audie Cornish is following from Capitol Hill.

AUDIE CORNISH: The House has already passed a bill, which they did late last fall, and the Senate Banking Committee has approved a draft which is going to the Senate floor. And both pieces of legislation sort of set the goal post for where we're going in the future.

For instance, both pieces contain a consumer-financial protection agency to watch over mortgages and credit cards and all kinds of consumer lending. And both of them have some sort of mechanism to deal with companies that are considered too big to fail.

RAZ: If either of these measures are going to pass, can the Democrats do it without Republican support or backing?

CORNISH: They can. It's not so clear that's going to happen because, essentially, everybody wants to do something about Wall Street. Wall Street is an easy target. The bailouts were a sort of ugly affair that no one wants to remember and every one wants to be seen pounding their fists saying, let's do something about this.

At the same time, I want to play a cut of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week talking about moving on to financial reform because I think this gets the atmosphere on Capitol Hill right now.

RAZ: And this is what she said after health care passed.

CORNISH: This is - yeah, this is fresh off the health care battle.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): Bipartisanship is nice, but it cannot be a substitute for action. Not having it cannot prevent us from going forward. So if they don't want to regulate Wall Street, we do and we will.

CORNISH: Essentially, bipartisanship, even in a situation where everybody wants to be onboard with some kind of regulation, is just not necessarily a done deal. At the same time, when you walk up to any Republican in the hallway and say, what do you think of the financial reform bill? They say we want reform and this isn't health care. That's the mantra you hear over and over again.

The average person and their constituents are not as riled up about derivatives or hedge funds or, you know, a resolution authority this bill makes.

RAZ: (Unintelligible)

CORNISH: Exactly.

RAZ: People don't like banks.

CORNISH: And, well, people don't fully understand what the banks have been doing, right? That's how we all sort of got into this mess. The banks were doing things that we didn't fully understand. The big non-banks like AIG were doing things we didn't fully understand. And that gap in knowledge is what prevents this from being something that is really going to be as fiery as what we saw with health care.

RAZ: What's the bottom line here? How likely is it that President Obama will have a financial overhaul bill on his desk by the end of the year or before the midterm elections in the fall?

CORNISH: The likelihood is very good. The question is going to be how strong will it be? Will it be something that, if implemented, would've or could've prevented the kind of problems we saw in the past or prevented the need to have bailouts? The longer this bill is out there for debate, the more time there is to pick at its bones and for special interest to get involved and for everyone to have a say in how it can be weakened or, you know, maybe in some instances, strengthened.

RAZ: That's NPR's Audie Cornish. Audie, thank you so much.

CORNISH: Thank you.

RAZ: Now if health care was the hot-button issue over the past year, it may have nothing on immigration. President Obama promised to tackle that issue during the campaign and last week, he told pro-immigration groups that he will.

But with high unemployment and an anti-incumbent mood in parts of the country, will Congress actually take the risk?

As reporter Peter Nicholas explains, there is a bipartisan proposal floating around the Senate right now. It's sponsored by New York Democrat Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Mr. PETER NICHOLAS (Reporter, Tribune): They're trying to hash out a compromise in which they would create some path to legalize status for the 11, 12 million people who are in the country illegally and also toughen up border enforcement and come up with a package that might be sellable in the Senate, something that could find a bipartisan support. But that was all complicated by the health care vote. Senator Graham said that he's so anguished by the way health care procedurally went forward that he might well withdraw his support on immigration.

There is also a bill in the House, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she's not going to move on this until the Senate acts.

RAZ: President Obama has called this one of his priorities. Now that health care overhaul is out of the way, he's focusing on some of these other issues that he campaigned on, immigration reform is one of them. How realistic is it that there might be some kind of movement on this before the midterm elections?

Mr. NICHOLAS: It's a tough sell, there's no question. People are exhausted in the House and Senate. I've spoken to Democratic Senate aids who say this is a very heavy lift. This will be difficult to do. But by the same token, there is a sense in the White House and among Democratic leadership in the House and Senate that something needs to be done here.

The president did promise to work on immigration in his first year in office. We're now on year two and there's going to be - there will be many, many disappointed Latino supporters of his, who are crucial to his election in 2008, who will be disappointed and disillusioned if he doesn't follow through.

And by the same token, Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, know that if they want to be more than a party of white people, they're going to have to take some positive steps in the direction of immigration reform.

RAZ: And Peter Nicholas, immigration is a really hot-button topic. I mean, this may be even more contentious than health care overhaul.

Mr. NICHOLAS: I think that's right. It's a fighting issue for members of Congress. And particularly, in a time of high unemployment, there are some skepticism about whether we should be admitting more people into the country to compete for scarce numbers of jobs. So for that reason and for many other reasons, it's among the most controversial issues that Congress could ever conceive.

RAZ: Now, unlike health care, there is bipartisan support for tackling the immigration question. Many Republicans make pro-business arguments and some Democrats make what they would call humanitarian arguments. So conceivably, you could have a bipartisan piece of legislation put together, right?

Mr. NICHOLAS: I think that's absolutely true, but the timing may be as poor as one could imagine for a bipartisan consensus on this. But all sides are sticking with it. President Obama is convening meetings in the White House. Schumer is continuing to work on it. Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, is trying to line up co-sponsors. You can't say it's dead yet but it's not an easy lift by any means.

RAZ: That's reporter Peter Nicholas talking about pending immigration legislation. He covers the White House for the Tribune newspapers.

Peter Nicholas, thank you so much.

Mr. NICHOLAS: Thanks, Guy. Good to be with you.

RAZ: Now if immigration proves too contentious, a climate bill may be slightly but only slightly less challenging. It's been almost a year since the House passed a comprehensive climate bill that would, for the first time, put a price tag on the amount of greenhouse gasses that industries could emit. But it's still not law because the House bill hasn't moved much in the Senate.

The question, as with all legislation up for consideration now, is if a climate bill can win support from both sides of the aisle in the Senate.

Here's Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): If a comprehensive bill by definition is cap-and-trade, then I think that's problematic.

RAZ: As NPR's Christopher Joyce explains, there are two proposals making the rounds in the Senate right now and both call for a cap on carbon emissions.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: One of them doesn't allow as much trading because they're afraid that Wall Street will turn these things into derivatives and we'll go down the same road as we did before the meltdown.

The thing that's common to both of them that they're pushing really hard is that money goes back. The government auctions these things. It gets revenues from allowing people to pollute. That money then must go back, or most of it, to the consumer and to industries to soften the blow of what might be higher prices (unintelligible).

RAZ: Let's just sort of put this into perspective. The idea behind a cap-and-trade, let's say, is that right now, companies in the U.S. don't have to pay to pollute basically, right? And in some other countries, they do have to pay.

JOYCE: Right.

RAZ: So the idea is to charge a tax on carbon emissions.

JOYCE: Although they don't want to call it a tax. But in essence, it's to put a price on carbon. Until you do that, the theory goes, people are not going to have the incentive either to conserve, to be more efficient or to put money into green technologies, like more solar, more wind, and even natural gas because they're not paying that extra (unintelligible), that price for putting CO2 into the atmosphere.

RAZ: Now, at the climate conference, the U.N. Climate Conference earlier this year, President Obama pledged that the U.S. would reduce its carbon emissions by something like

JOYCE: Seventeen percent.

RAZ: 17 percent from 2005 levels within 10 years, a little bit complicated. But he made that pledge. Obviously, it has to be backed by Congress. With these climate bills floating around in the Senate, that could happen.

JOYCE: The climate bills have the same target, 17 percent. And in fact, something better pass because the promise that President Obama made when he came back from Copenhagen was we've got a deal with China and India and we're going to take the lead here, folks, and the Europeans are no longer going to be telling us what to do. But we have to pass a climate bill to do that.

RAZ: Can the Democrats, say, if they wanted to pass something, and let's say they had no Republican support, could they use some of the tactics they used to pass health care to get a climate bill through this year?

JOYCE: You're seeing this already. One difference between the House bill that passed last June and the Senate bill is these goodies that are being offered to people who traditionally have been very skeptical about climate

RAZ: Things like nuclear reactors.

JOYCE: Right, lots of money for nuclear reactors. The president is playing along with this. The president has said, okay, we're going to allow loan guarantees if you want to build a nuclear power plant.

RAZ: There's one in Georgia.

JOYCE: Yeah, there's one in Georgia that's been proposed. Offshore drilling, I mean, this is a huge shift in allowing offshore drilling that is, again, is to buy the cooperation of those who might be skeptical.

So there's plenty of things to give out and that's traditionally how the energy bills get through Congress work, it's a lot of horse trading.

RAZ: That's NPR's science correspondent Christopher Joyce. Chris, thanks so much.

JOYCE: Pleasure to be here, Guy.

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