Friday, June 26, 2009

In Close Vote, House Passes Climate Bill

Measure Aims to Change Energy Use

Washington Post Staff Writers 
Saturday, June 27, 2009

The House narrowly passed an ambitious climate bill yesterday that would establish national limits on greenhouse gases, create a complex trading system for emission permits and provide incentives to alter how individuals and corporations use energy.

The bill passed 219 to 212 after a furious lobbying push by the White House and party leaders won over farm-state Democrats who had complained that it was too costly, and liberals who wondered if it was too watered down to work. Even after that effort, 44 Democrats voted against the legislation.

The bill, if it became law, would lead to vast changes in the ways energy is made, sold and used in the United States -- putting new costs over time on electricity from fossil fuels and directing new billions to "clean" power from sources such as the wind and the sun.

It would require U.S. emissions to decline 17 percent by 2020. To make that happen, the bill would create an economy that trades in greenhouse gases. Polluters would be required to buy "credits" to cover their emissions; Midwestern farmers, among others, could sell "offsets" for things they didn't emit; and Wall Street could turn those commodities into a new market.

Delaying the vote,  Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke for about an hour, reading long sections of a 300-page amendment unveiled at 3 a.m. yesterday.

When the bill finally passed, with eight Republicans voting yes, supporters praised it as a major milestone in the fight to slow climate change. Earlier attempts to cap emissions had stalled in Congress; this bill's surprisingly swift passage in the House marked a political victory for President Obama and Democratic leaders.

Obama had made the bill one of his two major domestic priorities, along with health-care reform. And this week he stepped in, lobbying some undecided lawmakers, playing down the costs to consumers and promoting the measure as a "jobs bill" that would create opportunities in the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency sectors.

One of the bill's co-sponsors,  Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), said: "The American people wanted change in our energy and climate policy. And this is the change that the people are overwhelmingly asking for." He called it "the most important energy and environment bill in the history of our country."

The drive to regulate greenhouse gases now moves to the Senate, where passing climate legislation could prove more difficult.

House conservatives blasted the more than 1,300-page bill, saying it would add crushing costs to energy and ship millions of jobs to countries such as China that do not have climate regulations. They also said there was a lack of clarity in the bill's provision to create carbon offsets, certificates in which companies in the United States and overseas could claim credit for avoiding emissions or taking them out of the air.

"In the midst of the worst recession in a generation, this administration and this majority in Congress are prepared to pass a national energy tax," said Rep.  Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

The heart of the bill is a "cap" that would lower greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and to 83 percent below those levels by 2050. It would enforce the cap by requiring many sources of such pollution, including power plants, factories and oil refineries, to amass buyable, sellable credits equal to their emissions.

The bill's co-sponsors, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman  Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Markey, rejected Obama's proposal to auction all emission allowances and use most of the revenues for tax cuts. Instead the measure would give away 85 percent of the annual emission allowances to consumers, coal-intensive manufacturers and utilities, as well as a variety of clean-energy interests, such as biofuel developers and superconductor makers. Most of those free allowances would be phased out in 10 to 20 years.

That set off a lobbying feeding frenzy, with 880 business and interest groups registered to lobby on the bill.

Agriculture Committee Chairman  Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) won concessions giving the Agriculture Department, instead of the Environmental Protection Agency, the authority to run a program that would give offsets to farmers who use tilling techniques that would keep carbon dioxide trapped in the soil.

For many environmental groups and liberal Democrats, these compromises made yesterday's victory somewhat sour. But many said they hoped the bill could be made stronger in the Senate.

"The bill still requires the first comprehensive, national limits on global warming pollution that get tighter every year," said Daniel Lashof, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He added that the bill's Democratic advocates "are the strongest environmental champions one can hope to have. People aren't happy about all the compromises, but you have to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Yesterday's 5 1/2 -hour floor debate featured Democratic leaders who called the bill a historic move against global warming, and Republicans who said its costs would pitch the country into economic ruin. Eight Republicans supported the legislation, a small number but a better show of GOP support than Obama received on key items such as the $787 billion stimulus bill and a $106 billion war-funding bill.

There were moments of unrehearsed drama: Liberal  Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), who in the morning issued a release saying he opposed the bill because it was "too weak" and moved "billions from the public to polluters," took the floor in the afternoon to say he had changed his mind.

"I believe there is still some hope to make improvements once it gets out of the House," Doggett said. "Better to have a seat at the table to try to influence the change that is needed in this legislation."

Republicans also ridiculed Waxman's deal-making in pursuit of votes. "If you haven't made your deal yet, come on down to the floor,"  Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) said. He sarcastically complimented Waxman for cutting deals in public. "It's unprecedented, but at least it's transparent," he said.

In one such instance, Democratic leaders signaled support for a $50 million national hurricane center in the central Florida district of freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D), who originally held out support for the legislation. Grayson voted for the measure.

And then came the fili-Boehner.

House tradition allows the speaker, the majority leader and the minority leader to ignore the usual time limits on floor speeches. So, at the end of four hours of debate, Boehner opened a binder containing the 300-page amendment.

"Don't you think the American people expect us to understand what's in this bill before we vote on it?" Boehner said, to cheers from Republicans.

He read numerous passages -- highlighting items such as credits for Fannie Mae-financed efficiency measures and plans for grants to study consumer behavior on energy use -- and offered critiques. Then,  Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), who was presiding over the chamber on her final day before moving to a State Department post, said his time had expired.

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