House passes major climate bill on close vote tied to cost

The road to passage of a top Obama priority will be even steeper in the Senate.
Staff writer/ June 26, 2009:   By Peter Grier


The House of Representatives on Friday voted by a narrow 219 to 212 to approve a hotly contested energy bill intended to cap US greenhouse gas emissions.

The legislation still has a long road to travel before it becomes law. But the House vote was a crucial victory for President Obama on one of his legislative priorities, and may give the White House political momentum as it pushes lawmakers for passage of another big item on its agenda, healthcare reform.

Obama himself called recalcitrant members on Friday as the bill’s fate hang in the balance. The White House insists that the bill will spur the growth of green jobs and make the US a leader on world climate change.

The House bill “contains provisions to protect consumers, keep costs low, help sensitive industries transition to a clean energy economy and promote domestic emission reduction efforts,” the White House said in a statement of support for the legislation.

Senate leaders say they hope to move a bill out of committee by July, and perhaps have full chamber debate in September. But the bill will have to attract 60 votes in the Senate, not a simple majority, if it is to avoid a filibuster. Senate Democrats from coal-producing and agriculture states may have to be wooed to back the legislation.

At the same time, some liberals want to try to strengthen the bill in the Senate. They particularly object to the fact that the House bill would distribute free to utilities, manufacturers, and other greenhouse gas emitting industries some 85 percent of the pollution permits it would authorize. Only 15 percent would be auctioned off, to raise the government money.

Many environmental groups think a higher percentage of the permits should be sold.

If greenhouse gas emission legislation reaches Obama’s desk, and he signs it into law, it might represent the most profound government intervention in the nation’s energy use since Washington began regulating the fuel economy of vehicles in 1975.

The debate in the House was fierce, befitting the stakes both sides saw in the bill.

“This is the most important energy and environment legislation to ever have been considered in the history of the United States,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Republicans, by contrast, called it the largest tax increase in American history — something that would body slam the nation back into deep recession if passed.

“The [energy bill] promises to destroy our standard of living,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R) of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.

The complex energy bill is already over 1,200 pages long. It would impose limits on the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that could be produced by US power plants, factories, and other industrial applications. The US would be forced to cut this pollution by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and by 80 percent in the next century.

A so-called “cap-and-trade” system would be the means of this reduction. Under cap-and-trade, the US government would distribute pollution allowances that could be bought and sold, depending on whether a particular facility produced fewer gas emissions than allowed, or wanted to pay to produce more.

At the heart of the fierce debate over the bill is its possible effect on the pocketbooks of individual Americans.

Democratic leaders said the bill’s effects would be modest, and pointed to recent Environmental Protection Agency and Congressional Budget Office studies as proof.

“This is going to cost American consumers about $175 [apiece] per year,” said Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, a former Energy and Commerce chief.

Republicans, pointing to higher energy costs that would ripple through the economy, say that the price to consumers is impossible to predict, and in all likelihood will amount to far more than Democrats believe.

GOP members also insisted that it is foolish for the US to attempt such greenhouse gas emission reductions in a geopolitical context in which China, India, and other developing nations refuse to undertake similar actions.

“I will not make my constituents poorer so that others can get richer at their expense,” said Rep. Lucas.

The focus of climate change legislation now moves to the Senate, which must draw up and vote on its own version of the measure. Senate leaders say they hope to move a bill out of committee by July, and perhaps have full chamber debate in September.

A greenhouse gas bill is one of President Obama’s top legislative priorities.

The Senate now must draw up and vote on its own version of climate change legislation — an effort that may be even more difficult than it was in the House.

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