Dems weigh climate floor debate before July 4

Seeking to maintain momentum from last month's markup, House Democrats are considering an aggressive push this month for floor passage of energy and global warming legislation.

Democratic leaders must choose between a floor debate during the next four weeks on their comprehensive bill, (pdf), or waiting until after the July 4 recess. Hill leadership aides say no decisions have been made, but the topic is atop the agenda for today's regularly scheduled meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other top Democrats.

"We'll move forward as quickly as we can," a House Democratic leadership aide said yesterday. "And we'll move forward as we're ready."

Sources on and off Capitol Hill say the Obama administration has quietly been encouraging House action before the July 4 recess in order to focus attention on a bill that last month cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee on a 33-25 vote. So far, White House officials have declined comment on their preference for when to move the legislation.

The move could also help clear the way for lawmakers to take up health care reform -- another top Obama White house initiative -- in July.

Meanwhile, Obama officials also are turning their focus to the Senate, where sources say key administration representatives have held dozens of meetings with lawmakers in preparation for the much more difficult fight to win 60 votes and defeat an expected Republican filibuster. Leading House Democrats responsible for the bill, namely Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), are scheduled today to brief their Senate colleagues, including Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Back in the House, action is expected to be relatively swift for the eight committees that have a piece of the bill.

The House Ways and Means Committee and Agriculture Committee "have very significant roles to play" in the bill, Hoyer said last month. The Maryland Democrat predicted swift action for the other committees, including Transportation and Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs and Financial Services.

"I think most of the committees will give relatively quick treatment of it," Hoyer said. "Their level of concern is not high."

Hoyer has said the floor debate would begin either at the end of June or early next month. But Pelosi to date has not set any deadlines for other committees to act on the bill, though that is expected to change this week.

"She's got to figure that out and start the clock running," said one former Democratic aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Should Democrats opt for floor action this month, it would mean an abbreviated effort to work out unresolved issues with the House Ways and Means and Agriculture committees.

Manik Roy, vice president of federal outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said Waxman and Markey proved during last month's markup that they are capable of working quickly to produce a winning combination while still dealing with different regional concerns -- and he said action in the next four weeks should not be ruled out.

"That's a pretty big lift," Roy said. "It's ambitious, but not impossible."

"As with any fragile agreement, the faster you move it the more likely it is to remain intact," added Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.

But industry attorney Scott Segal cautioned Democrats against forcing an uncomfortable issue on their own members by pressing a floor vote over the next four weeks.

"If it moves so fast that we're dealing with it already in the month of June, then other committees will not have had time to do any form of serious analysis on the bill," said Segal, who represents electric utilities and petroleum refiners for Bracewell & Giuliani. "They'll have made the decision to honor committee referral in name only."

A farm state fight?

House Agriculture Committee Democrats have several problems with the push for action on a comprehensive energy bill, starting with how to define biomass as renewable energy and Wall Street's involvement in carbon trading. Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) also opposes indirect land-use considerations for biofuels, an issue that is not specifically mentioned in the legislation.

And he wants a larger share of agricultural offsets -- with stronger Agriculture Department oversight -- factored into the bill. House Democratic leaders are expected to pay close attention to Peterson and the farm state lawmakers' concerns.

"There's not so many votes that you can just piss off the Aggies," said the former Democratic aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"The farm constituency is a big place to concentrate," added Roy. "It's a key moderate constituency that's not as fully represented on Energy and Commerce as so many others are."

As for the Ways and Means Committee, it is unclear what Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) wants to do with the energy legislation. Rangel clouded the picture last month when he told reporters that Obama's health care agenda would be a higher priority than the climate bill. But Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), another committee member and a top Pelosi ally, said he did not expect Rangel to perform "radical surgery" on the Waxman-Markey bill.

Rangel could just focus in on provisions of the Energy and Commerce Committee's bill that deal with international trade and the auctioning of 15 percent of the allowances where the funding is dedicated toward low-income consumers. He also could go much deeper and prompt a sweeping debate over whether Congress should enact a carbon tax rather than a cap-and-trade program.

Democratic leaders are expected to keep close tabs on Rangel as he works with the House bill that has built into it an allowance structure that Waxman, Markey and Boucher carefully negotiated last month. Any major changes could prompt a feeding frenzy as lawmakers push to further divide up a limited number of allocations.

"That'd be a disaster," Roy said. "The agreements made in Energy and Commerce cannot be undone."

Spokesmen for both the Agriculture and Ways and Means committees said yesterday that no decisions have been made on how they will proceed on the climate bill.

Looking toward the floor, Energy and Commerce Democrats are also expected to have a busy month trying to make the case to colleagues who have not spent much time on the global warming issue.

"I'd think that members who voted for it in committee are going to want company on the floor from members who are similarly situated," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center.

According to an E&E projection, Pelosi has about 170 Democrats she already can count on to pass the energy bill, as well as at least three Republicans, New Jersey Reps. Christopher Smith and Frank LoBiondo and California Rep. Mary Bono Mack.

To reach the 218 threshold, Pelosi will need to win the votes of dozens of moderate and conservative Democrats from all corners of the country. Also, as many as 30 Republicans may be in play, including Reps. Michael Castle of Delaware, Anh Cao of Louisiana, Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, and Dave Reichert of Washington.

Given that House rules put enormous power in Pelosi's hands, few dispute she will move to debate the bill on the floor if she is short of a majority.

"I tend to think the speaker proceeds as long as she wins, as long as she knows she has a majority, no matter how slim," Segal said.