INSIGHT: US climate change bill is gasping for air

03 September 2009 17:31  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

Prospects for US climate change bill looking grimWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The once healthy climate change bill soon might be a candidate for end-of-life counselling, its fate perhaps already sealed by a death-panel of congressional Democrats more fearful of constituents’ ire and fire than global warming.

This week Democrat Senators Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, principal authors of a developing Senate climate change bill, announced that they have postponed introduction of their legislation.

The Boxer-Kerry bill was to have been introduced on 8 September, having already been postponed from an original launch date earlier this year. In their joint statement, the two senators said their goal is to introduce the measure later in September.

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Kerry, who heads the chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee, had hoped to have their climate bill approved by the Senate in time for the 6-18 December UN climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen - in order to establish US leadership in climate issues and to help persuade developing nations to follow.

The House passed its huge, 1,400-page climate bill, HR-2454, in late June with a narrow vote of 219-212, almost exclusively along party lines.

For a time, there were hopes, however unrealistic, that the Senate could have its version of a cap-and-trade climate measure all but complete in time for the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 24-25 September.

The Pittsburgh target date is now out of the question and the Copenhagen goal also looks increasingly unlikely - as does the climate bill itself.

The trouble is that popular opinion on the climate change measure, which was never very strong, has weakened still further while voter support for Democrats in Congress and President Barack Obama has nose-dived in just a few months.

According to a Gallup survey, concerns about global warming rank dead last among US voters compared with other issues. A Zogby poll found that 57% of surveyed Americans oppose cap-and-trade while only 30% back it.

Gallup reported that 41% of Americans think global warming fears are exaggerated, and the Rasmussen pollsters found that only a third of US voters believe human activity is responsible for global warming.

While popular opposition to or suspicions about global warming and the costs of cap-and-trade have risen, voter affection for Democrats on The Hill has headed south.

According to Rasmussen Reports, 43% of voters in House districts would vote for a Republican candidate while only 36% would back the Democrat candidate.

“That represents the lowest level of support for Democrats in recent years,” said Rasmussen, “while Republicans have tied their highest level of support for the third straight week.”

Among independent voters - those who do not claim affiliation with either major party and often represent the swing votes that decide elections - the picture is even more bleak for congressional Democrats.

A survey conducted in the last week of August by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that “most of the shift in voting intentions since the 2006 election cycle has occurred among political independents”, and the shift has been away from Democrats.

The Pew Center reported that while independent voters backed Democrats by a wide margin of 11% over Republicans at the time of the last national election, “currently they support the GOP [Republican] candidate in their district by 43% to 38%”. 

So among the crucial independents voter pool, Democrats have slipped from an 11% lead over Republicans and are now trailing them by 7% - a total shift of 18 percentage points in just the seven months since President Obama was sworn in and the new Democrat majority convened the 111th Congress.

The president has experienced an equally sharp fall, setting a new record for accelerated disaffection for a newly elected president.

David Brooks reported in the New York Times that “the number of Americans who trust President Obama to make the right decisions has fallen by roughly 17 percentage points”.

“Obama’s job approval is down to about 50%,” he noted, adding: “All presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but in the history of polling, no newly elected American president has fallen this far this fast.”

Much of this growing disfavour with the Democrat leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill is over the healthcare reform programme being pushed by the administration and congressional Democrats.

Among widespread concerns evoked by the huge healthcare reform bills pending in Congress is the fear that a committee of doctors and federal bureaucrats might have the power to decide whether a sick person, especially an elderly patient, should receive life-sustaining but short-term and costly medical treatments.

The healthcare reform bill does require end-of-life counselling by doctors with their seriously ill patients (and encourages such counselling by paying doctors to conduct those sessions), and that complicated provision in the reform measure has been labelled, fairly or not, as a government-ordered “death panel” that could deny care to ill seniors.

While the death-panel might be a fiction in healthcare reform legislation, there is perhaps a panel of key Democrats in the Senate and House who would like to pull life-support from climate change legislation. 

Many among the Democrats are said to fear that if they do push through a costly cap-and-trade bill - which even President Obama and other supporters acknowledge will raise US consumers’ energy costs significantly - they will pay for it at polls in the November 2010 midterm elections.

In the 100-member US Senate, Democrats hold 57 seats and generally can count on support from the chamber’s two independents. One Democrat Senate seat has become vacant with the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.  Republicans hold the remaining 40 seats.

However, to pass major and controversial legislation such as the climate bill, a super-majority of 60 votes is needed in the Senate. With Republican opposition to cap-and-trade nearly unanimous in the Senate, the Democrat leadership will need every Democrat vote and at least one Republican to push through such a bill. 

But at least three Democrat senators already have voiced strong public reservations about cap-and-trade or an energy tax, including Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Maria Cantwell of Washington and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Several other Senate Democrats are thought to be privately opposed to climate change legislation - at least to a bill that would put additional cost burdens on voters - and would not approve such legislation.

So while there might not be a sufficient number of senators to pass a climate change bill, there is probably more than enough to form a death-panel to pull the plug on cap-and-trade.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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