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A conference strategy for a carbon price?

"Be aware," writes Marc Ambinder. "The White House has a strategy here for getting climate change legislation passed. It's called 'getting to conference.' That is, the Senate needs to pass a bill this year. And then the House and Senate will (in theory) put in some sort of carbon pricing mechanism when the two chambers reconcile their bills. It's just much easier to get bills passed without forcing the Senate to try to pass a bill it does not have the votes to pass."

I don't buy this. In part, that's because it's not the first time I've heard it. Here's Obama, making the same argument about health-care reform back in July:

Conference is where these differences will get ironed out. And that's where my bottom lines will remain: Does this bill cover all Americans? Does it drive down costs both in the public sector and the private sector over the long-term. Does it improve quality? Does it emphasize prevention and wellness? Does it have a serious package of insurance reforms so people aren't losing health care over a preexisting condition? Does it have a serious public option in place? Those are the kind of benchmarks I'll be using.

Of course, there was no conference, and if there had been, it would not have ended with a serious public option in place. There's nothing magic about conference that allows controversial policies that couldn't pass the Senate the first time around to pass on the second go. The advantage of a conference report is that it can't be amended, which means you might be able to sneak in some small concessions to the House that aren't important enough for anyone to sink the whole bill over. But it can be filibustered. So if you add anything major to the bill that would've killed it on the pre-conference vote, it's a good bet that it'll kill it on the post-conference vote as well.

Carbon pricing almost certainly falls into that category. It's not a side policy or a bit of pork. It's the core of a climate bill. If it doesn't pass in the original Senate bill, that's because it can't pass the Senate. Adding it in during conference won't change that. It'll just mean the conference report can't pass the Senate, either. I can't see any permutation of this in which a conference strategy for carbon pricing makes any sense.

I don't want to be too hard on the White House here. I don't think there's a magic wand they can wave or speech they can give that'll turn 40-some votes into 60. For that reason, I'm be very sympathetic to the White House saying that they can't pass a carbon price and need a short-term legislative strategy that can get 60 votes, even if I'd like to see that paired with a longer-term persuasive strategy to make a carbon price more palatable in the future. But I'm not very sympathetic to them stringing activists along.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 16, 2010; 10:46 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Comments

Hell, I'll keep trying:

The US Military is predicting oil shortages by 2015. Google it. You won't find a NY Times or WaPo story on it. But, yes, the military is saying that peak oil is immminent.

So. Climate change is not the issue here, dude. I'm all for a carbon price, but for god's sake we have to call it something else. Messaging everything around climate change is so 2000's. Get ahead of the curve! Lets not sleepwalk into this like we did the Iraq War and the Financial Crisis.

Ezra out of curiosity how much time do you have to read your comments?

Posted by: nathanlindquist | June 16, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The reports that I have read indicate that the strategy behind the conference strategy this time are connected to the calendar.

The idea is to get the Senate to pass something (anything) in July before the Kagan confirmation and before the start of the fall campaigning. The conference process would not take place until the lame duck session of Congress, after the November election.

Presumably, with the election behind them, Senate and House members would be more amenable to crafting energy policy based more upon the merits than upon the election politics.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 16, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

"I don't buy this. In part, that's because it's not the first time I've heard it. "

Yeah, well. Who you gonna vote for? Sarah Palin? I don't think so. :)

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 16, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Democrats should want to pass a simple energy bill now before the elections. Take out all of the liberal carbon pricing junk and just focus on ways to produce more energy, especially clean energy in the United States. There is time to do that if they take out all of the controversial climate change/carbon taxing components of this bill and pass the politically popular components of the bill.

Posted by: lancediverson | June 16, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Is there any evidence that they're waiting to do a carbon bill until after the elections so they can change the filibuster rule and get around having to have a 60-vote supermajority? People have been talking about the need to revise the filibuster rules all term, and the President of the Senate can do it at the beginning of a new legislative session, can't he?

Posted by: gmjungbluth | June 16, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

The conference committee strategy Ambinder mentions is possible only if all Republican Senators no parliamentary savvy and is (in practice) useful only if the desired outcome needs to be hidden from public scrutiny: neither case is true of the proposed massive tax on currently available fuels.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 16, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

The magic bullet here is EPA regulation of carbon under the Clean Air Act. The Senate can't filibuster that because its already the law of the land. Progressives need to be prepared for the ultimate betrayal: that will be an Administration-supported energy bill which doesn't provide for carbon pricing but does eliminate EPA authority to regulate carbon. Progressives need to be prepared to filibuster that bill when it comes. This will mean standing up to media and Administration claims that progressives are irresponsibly killing clean energy. As long as progressives can hold a filibuster on that point, the senators from the coal states will have to relent and allow a vote on carbon pricing. If they don't, then they face EPA regulation, which is fine for them, but not so fine for the coal-producing states.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | June 16, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, be fair. The health care analogy doesn't fit because most legislative strategies went out the window under pressure from events and as the clock wound down. The fact that Lieberman decided to knife the public option in the back in a last-minute move (which you yourself noted didn't make a lick of sense unless you assumed cavalier motives) doesn't necessarily reflect on the legislative game plan for much of 2009. And the lack of a conference committee wasn't a product of the White House "stringing activists along." It was Scott Brown.

Posted by: fbacon2 | June 16, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

What QuiteAlarmed said. The Obama Admin has had a year and a half to study what can be done under the EPA. Get the ball rolling *now*. Announce it and fast track it. The heck with the fallout in November: it would take a veto proof margin in Congress to overturn it, and that's not going to happen.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | June 16, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't this point to the necessity of Senate Reform as absolutely critical?

Since nearly every issue requires a supermajority vote instead of a simple majority, under constant threat of filibuster nothing gets done—on anything.

And if the Senate is unwilling or unable to reform itself, all the rest is moot—no matter which party controls it.

Posted by: tomcammarata | June 16, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

What needs to be kept in mind on this is that the conference can occur AFTER THE ELECTION in a lame duck session.

Posted by: gregspolitics | June 16, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

It's certainly possible to move a carbon pricing vehicle though a sidecar reconciliation if they had ACELA or something passed like they did on healthcare.

It would be a way bigger deal then the changes made to the health care package and they've explicitly said they won't do it.

Posted by: cbrowndc | June 16, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I wish various people would keep up.

In the 2005 Annual Energy Outlook the EIA projected declining coal prices. The inflation adjusted price of coal had been dropping for 30 years. A reasonable assumption.

The price of coal didn't decline. It went up, dramatically.

The historical belief that there was an 'unlimited supply of cheap coal' proved to be false.

Plans for numerous coal fired plants have been canceled, plans for dozens of nuclear power plans have been submitted to the NRC and are awaiting approval.

The Electric Utilities on the East and West Coasts of the United States have already concluded that the days of 'cheap electricity from cheap coal' are over.

Why do we need a law that punishes utilities and ultimately consumers for the fact that they have to wait years for government approvals?


Posted by: SoldiersDad | June 17, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

In response to the post below the new Congress can deal with the EPA by cutting off its funding, just like they can cut off funding for Obamacare until the new President is in office in 2012 and it can be repealed. That is the magic bullet.
_____________________
The magic bullet here is EPA regulation of carbon under the Clean Air Act. The Senate can't filibuster that because its already the law of the land. Progressives need to be prepared for the ultimate betrayal: that will be an Administration-supported energy bill which doesn't provide for carbon pricing but does eliminate EPA authority to regulate carbon. Progressives need to be prepared to filibuster that bill when it comes. This will mean standing up to media and Administration claims that progressives are irresponsibly killing clean energy. As long as progressives can hold a filibuster on that point, the senators from the coal states will have to relent and allow a vote on carbon pricing. If they don't, then they face EPA regulation, which is fine for them, but not so fine for the coal-producing states.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | June 16, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Bubbette1 | June 17, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

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