CLIMATE: Senate floor schedule puts global warming in line behind financial reform

Darren Samuelsohn, E&E senior reporter (11/17/2009)

Senate Democratic leaders are planning floor debate on a major climate and energy bill in the spring, after they complete legislation on both health care and financial regulatory reform, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said yesterday.

Kerry, one of the climate bill’s lead authors, described the “big picture outline” of the 2010 Senate floor schedule following an hourlong meeting with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and four other Democratic committee leaders working on the energy and global warming package.

Senate Climate Bill

Speaking to reporters, Kerry said he endorsed efforts to place climate change in the floor queue after the health care bill and a separate measure that places restrictions on Wall Street and the U.S. banks at the center of last year’s financial meltdown.

“I think it’d be good if we do that first, because it helps to establish the rules of the marketplace,” Kerry said.

Kerry said he hoped to deliver an energy and climate bill to Reid for floor debate “some time in the early spring, as early as possible” — a schedule that roughly lines up with the recently revamped U.N. negotiation plan on an international treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she supported the move to advance financial regulatory reform first and said the energy and climate bill would not be ready with the requisite 60 votes earlier anyway.

“If in fact a cap-and-trade proposal were to go forward, we darn well better make sure our financial house is in order before we implement this brand new currency,” Murkowski said.

Senate action on the financial reform package has been slow for much of the year, but the pace is quickly changing for the two committees at the center of the effort.

Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) will mark up legislation Thursday that takes broad aim at bringing more “over the counter” derivatives under regulation, as well as reforming credit rating agencies and major financial institutions. And Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow on a similar set of issues that have direct relation to the creation of a new U.S. carbon market estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion.

Lincoln told reporters yesterday that she has another regulatory reform hearing planned for next month and that she is working with Dodd on the overall package.

Reid’s office did not address specific questions about the timing of the different bills for 2010. But the Nevada Democrat issued a prepared statement on the overall direction of the climate and energy package.

“Today’s meeting offered us another opportunity to discuss the best way to move forward to bring to the floor strong, bipartisan climate protection legislation that can attract more than 60 votes,” Reid said.

“We are continuing to work to bring a bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible,” Reid added. “The proposals we are discussing will create millions of jobs, lower energy bills and reduce dependence on foreign oil imports. They will also invest significantly in 21st century clean energy technologies to make America more competitive. I am optimistic about our progress and look forward to more productive meetings to move this effort forward in the near future.”

Meanwhile, Reid plans to bring the six committee leaders together again next month before the U.N. talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, Kerry said.

Baucus’ markup plans

Key senators had different interpretations yesterday about when Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would sign off on his pieces of the climate bill.

Kerry told reporters Baucus had agreed to finish his work dealing with international trade and allocation of valuable emission allowances by “early next year.”

“Max is dead-set serious about getting this done early, reporting to us, and that’s a very important component of it,” Kerry said. “But I’m very optimistic that he’s going to get that done and that’s going to be very timely.”

Kerry added that the Finance Committee chairman’s plan “is very much in keeping with the schedule that I’ve been sort of working on.”

But in a brief interview, Baucus was far from clear about his markup schedule. “Sometime soon,” he said. “I don’t have a date.” Pressed for more specifics, Baucus replied, “I mean some time next year. The first part of next year. Put it that way.”

Lincoln was the only one of the six Senate committee leaders with jurisdiction over energy and climate change who did not attend yesterday’s meeting in Reid’s office.

Kerry shrugged off her absence, saying he planned to meet with the new Agriculture Committee leader later this week alongside his lead co-authors, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Asked about her plans for holding hearings on climate legislation, Lincoln replied, “We are taking it one day at a time.”

‘This is a jobs bill’

Senate Democrats are juggling a number of priorities headed into the 2010 midterm elections, including unemployment figures above 10 percent for the first time in two decades.

Several media outlets have reported in recent days that Reid wants to advance another economic recovery bill next year, though details on the proposal remain unclear. Kerry insisted yesterday that any new economic stimulus bill dovetailed well with his work on the climate proposal.

“This is a jobs bill,” Kerry said. “This is without question a jobs bill. I’d say this is the biggest jobs bill staring us in the face without any question, and we’ll prove that as we go down the road in the next days. So if you want to do a jobs bill, this is the bill to do. And I’d argue that with the president very, very forcefully.”

No matter what they call it, Kerry and allies face an uphill climb to get their bill ready for floor debate.

For example, a coalition of 14 Midwestern Senate Democrats last week sent Reid, Kerry, Baucus and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) a letter outlining concerns about allocation provisions that they say are too favorable to electric utilities on the coasts (E&ENews PM, Nov. 12).

Several Democratic senators who signed the letter are among those who E&E considers “fence sitters” in the climate debate, including Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — a fact not lost on Kerry.

“If people as a bloc of 14 have a concern, we have an obligation to try and address it, figure out where we are,” Kerry said.

Delay wins accolades

The Democrats’ shift to financial regulatory reform won accolades from many on Capitol Hill.

“The way you restore confidence in the financial system is to put the pieces together in a way that prevents the kind of thing we saw last year from ever happening again,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “I think it’s a huge priority.”

But Dorgan downplayed any connection between the Wall Street proposal and the climate bill. “Financial reform is necessary just to restore faith in the financial system,” he said. “The issue of how you reduce carbon and what mechanism you use, that’s a different issue.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a member of the Agriculture and EPW committees, said the additional time would be useful for building support on the global warming measure. “There will be a lot of work done on the energy bill all through that time,” she said. “We need that time to work on it, just like we used the time on the health care reform, to work on the bill to get through [the EPW] committee.”

Boxer insisted that authors of the energy and climate bill never had an agreement from Democratic leaders that their proposal would be next on the floor after health care. The California Democrat added that it was more important this year for the Senate to show some progress headed into U.N. negotiations next month in Copenhagen, though even that schedule got a bit of relief when world leaders agreed this weekend to delay signatures on a final treaty until 2010.

“We’ll have to do something next year because that’s when we’re going to have the final agreement, worldwide agreement,” Boxer said. “The hope is to get this done next year and to make as much progress as we can right now toward that goal.”

E&E reporters Robin Bravender and Kate Ling contributed.