Now Baucus Wants to Mess With the Climate Bill

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With Lindsey Graham offering support for climate legislation and other Republicans making sympathetic noises too, the prospects for a climate bill had been brightening recently. Or at least they were—until Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made it clear on Tuesday that he won’t vote for the Senate proposal in its current form.

Up until now, Baucus has been too preoccupied with health care reform to devote much time to climate issues. But his ability to gum up the works is significant. He’s a member of Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Environment and Public Works committee, which will mark up the bill and must approve the measure before it can be considered by the wider Senate. As chair of the Finance Committee, Baucus has also indicated that he plans to assert jurisdiction over how the bill allocates emissions permits.

In the health care debate, Baucus delayed the bill in the Finance Committee for months, watering it down in an effort to win the support of the panel’s Republicans. In the end  only one (Olympia Snowe) voted for it. Now, he’s apparently proposing a similar process for the climate bill. “I support passing common-sense climate legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our economy. And the key word in that sentence is ‘passing,'” said Baucus at the Environment and Public Works Committee’s first hearing on the measure. He questioned whether the bill as written “will lead us closer to or further away” from that goal.

Boxer’s committee was expected to pass the legislation with relatively little trouble—the panel is much more progressive on environmental matters than Rep. Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee, which took the lead in the House. But now Baucus is arguing that a significant number of Senate moderates share his views—and wants to cater to their concerns before the bill even comes before other committees like the agriculture panel which are expected to water down its provisions. “We cannot afford a first step that takes us further away from an achievable consensus on common-sense climate change,” Baucus said “We could build that consensus here in this committee. If we don’t, we risk wasting another month, another year, another Congress, without taking a step forward into our future.”

In particular, Baucus listed “serious reservations” about the bill’s near-term emissions reduction target, which aims to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020. That’s already a lower target than climate scientists say is necessary—and is easily attainable given the fact that emissions have already declined in the recession. Baucus was also displeased that the bill recognizes the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. And he hinted at more parochial concerns as well, like his home state’s agriculture and coal sectors. “Montana, with our resource-based agriculture and tourism economies, cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change,” he said. “But we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of climate-change legislation.”

There is one bright spot: Because Democrats on the Environment and Public Works committee have a 12-7 majority, they could move the bill forward without Baucus or his fellow moderate on the panel, Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who has also expressed reservations. (That still woudn’t stop Baucus from holding the bill up in the Finance Committee later, though.) At Tuesday’s hearing Boxer indicated that she’s in no mood for funny business. When Ohio Republican George Voinovich complained that her bill isn’t bipartisan, Boxer rertorted that climate change isn’t either. “Global warming isn’t waiting for who’s a Democrat or who’s a Republican,” Boxer said. “Either we’re going to deal with this problem, or we’re not.”

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