"The Republicans are right, this is a cap-and-tax bill," said former Sen. Timothy Wirth, criticizing the Waxman-Markey climate change bill in an interview with Bloomberg News last month. "That's what it is because they are raising revenue to do all sorts of things, especially to take care of the coal industry, and it makes no sense."
Although all the focus has been on the difficulties facing health care reform, the Obama administration-supported Waxman-Markey bill may be in even deeper trouble. Republicans have consistently blasted it as a national energy tax, but it is divisions among Democrats that may doom the legislation in the Senate.
Wirth, for example, is no right-wing Republican. He served six terms as a Democrat in the House and one in the Senate, holding the Colorado seat once occupied by Gary Hart. As undersecretary for global affairs in the State Department, he was one of the Clinton administration's leading climate change negotiators. Wirth currently runs the UN Foundation, a philanthropic group funded with seed money from liberal media mogul Ted Turner.
Fully 44 House Democrats voted against Waxman-Markey when it narrowly passed the House in June, including Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), the brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Many of these legislators hailed from relatively conservative districts. According to an analysis by National Journal's Ronald Brownstein, 59 percent of Democrats representing districts carried by John McCain in the 2008 presidential election defied both President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by voting no.
That explains some of the Democratic opposition in the Senate, where about 15 Democrats are not doing Harry Reid's bidding. Last month, several Democrats called for a narrower bill that junks cap and trade entirely while focusing on renewable energy instead. "The problem of doing both of them together is that it becomes too big of a lift," Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) told reporters in August. "I see the cap-and-trade being a real problem."
But some Democrats are balking for reasons other than fear of alienating conservative voters by supporting a broad-based energy tax increase. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is considered one of the most progressive members of Congress's upper chamber. He doesn't sound too impressed by Waxman-Markey.
Speaking to a "listening session" in Wisconsin, Feingold cited cap and trade as one of the reasons he "is the Democrat who has least voted with President Obama." A local newspaper quoted him saying of cap and trade, "You know, the other countries won't play ball... They cannot be given a free pass, and we cannot do cap-and-trade alone."
These sentiments were echoed by the energy policy director of the Ralph Nader-affiliated advocacy group Public Citizen. "We don't want to go forward with strong carbon regulations here and see China and India have no regulations," Tyson Slocum told a Wyoming newspaper.
Democrats like Wirth would like to see a bill focused entirely on coal-fired power plants rather than a general cap on carbon pollution. "I'm not critical of cap-and-trade," he told Bloomberg News. "But it has to be used in a targeted and disciplined way, and what has happened is it's getting out of control."
Yet that compromise wouldn't win the vote of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who is already on record arguing that cap and trade could hurt his coalmining state. He has pressed for "short-term economic assistance" for the coal industry and, like Feingold, tariffs on goods from countries that don't similarly limit carbon emissions.
Other liberal outfits, like the Center for Biological Diversity, want the bill beefed up in the Senate rather than watered down. But even they have signed on to letters requesting a more transparent process for determining the value of carbon credits.
All of these Democratic divisions come on the heels of polling that shows more intensity among opponents of Waxman-Markey than supporters. While Rasmussen Reports found only 35 percent could correctly identify the cap and trade scheme, the plan is vulnerable to charges -- which even supporters concede in the short term -- that it will raise energy costs for ordinary Americans.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, an Obama ally, agrees. "Anything you put in that effectively taxes carbon emissions is -- somebody's going to bear the brunt of it," Buffett said in a March interview with CNBC. He went on to say "that tax is probably going to be pretty regressive." Regressive taxes tend not to sell well, even among core Democratic constituencies.
Like the health care debate, this discussion has tended to be covered as a Republican versus Democrat conflict. But the reality is the Democrats have the votes in Congress to pass almost whatever they want with little or no Republican support. The real story is a conflict that pits Democrat against Democrat.
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