Associated Press: Major Energy-Climate Bill Chugs toward House Vote

Jun 26, 2009
In The News

WASHINGTON (AP) — With President Barack Obama lobbying by phone, the Democratic-controlled House churned toward a showdown vote Friday night on historic legislation to reduce pollution linked to global warming and power the nation with cleaner but more expensive energy.

Democrats struggled to solidify a fragile coalition needed for passage and appeared headed for success. "We don’t have the votes to stop this bill," conceded Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., as the roll call neared on a measure that Republicans said would kill jobs across the country while pushing consumer energy costs higher.

Republicans sought to delay the inevitable. Moments before a final vote was scheduled, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio plunged into an hour-long speech, methodically raising questions or ridiculing numerous changes that he said Democrats had made public after 3 a.m. Friday.

He called the bill "the most profound piece of legislation to come to this floor in 100 years," but one that would create "a bureaucratic nightmare" without solving the nation’s energy problems.

Supporters and opponents agreed the result would be higher energy costs but disagreed vigorously on the impact on consumers. Democrats pointed to two reports — one from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the other from the Environmental Protection Agency — that suggested average increases would be limited after tax credits and rebates were taken into account. The CBO estimated the bill would cost an average household $175 a year, the EPA $80 to $110 a year, but Republicans and industry groups said the real figure would much higher.

The White House and congressional Democrats argued the bill would create millions of "green jobs" as the nation shifts to greater reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and development of more fuel-efficient vehicles — and away from use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.

It will "make our nation the world leader on clean energy jobs and technology," declared Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who negotiated deals with dozens of lawmakers in recent weeks to broaden the bill’s support.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had pledged to get the legislation passed before lawmakers left on their July 4 vacation. She took an intense personal interest in the measure, sitting through hours of meetings with members of the rank and file and nurturing fragile compromises.

At its heart, the bill was a trade-off, less than the White House initially sought though it was more than Republicans said was acceptable. Some of the dealmaking had a distinct political feel. Rep. Alan Grayson, a first-term Democrat, won a pledge of support that $50 million from the proceeds of pollution permit sales in the bill would go to a proposed new hurricane research facility in his district in Orlando, Fla.

An administration plan to sell pollution permits and raise more than $600 billion over a decade — money to finance continuation of a middle class tax cut — was largely jettisoned due to opposition from energy companies and their allies in the House. The final bill also contained concessions to satisfy farm-state lawmakers, ethanol producers, hydroelectric advocates, the nuclear industry and others.

The Senate has yet to act on the measure, and a major struggle is expected there. The bill’s supporters would need 60 votes to overcome any Republican filibuster.

In a long day of debate Friday, Democrats narrowly won a test vote, 217-205 that cleared the bill over its first hurdle. Thirty Democrats defected on that vote, reflecting the divisiveness of the issue.

Even as the debate proceeded on the House floor, Obama made phone calls from the White House, seeking support from recalcitrant Democrats. Obama has made the measure a top priority of his first year, maintaining it will "open the door to a clean energy economy," spur the growth of "green" jobs and make the United States a world leader on climate change.

The legislation would impose first-ever limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, factories and refineries. It also would force a shift from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable and more efficient forms of energy.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the bill marked a fundamental change in U.S. climate and energy policy and characterized it as "the "most important environmental and energy legislation to ever have been considered" by Congress.

"This is revolutionary. This is a moment in history," declared Markey, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Republicans saw it differently.

This "amounts to the largest tax increase in American history under the guise of climate change," declared Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

And Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said it "promises to destroy our standard of living and quality of life with higher energy costs, higher food prices and lost jobs." He called it the "single largest economic threat to our farmers and ranchers in decades."

But Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said there was a "moral imperative to be good stewards of the earth" and move the United States to the forefront in addressing the climate problem.

The legislation, totaling about 1,200 pages, would require the U.S. to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and by about 80 percent by the end of the century. That was slightly more aggressive than Obama originally wanted, 14 percent by 2020 and the same 80 percent by the dawn of the next century.

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are rising at about 1 percent a year and are predicted to continue increasing without mandatory limits.

Under the bill, the government would limit heat-trapping pollution from factories, refineries and power plants and issue allowances for polluters. Most of the allowances would be given away, but about 15 percent cent would be auctioned by bid, and the proceeds used to defray higher energy costs for lower-income individuals and families.

There was widespread agreement that under this cap-and-trade system, the cost of energy would almost certainly increase. But Democrats argued that much of the impact on taxpayers would be offset by the tax credits and rebates in the measure.

Republicans questioned the validity of the CBO study and noted that even that analysis showed actual energy production costs increasing $770 per household. Industry groups have cited other studies showing much higher costs to the economy and to individuals.

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