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Landmark climate bill squeaks through

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

June 27, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke time and again of preserving "God's beautiful creation" as she mustered all the skills she learned, at her father's knee in Baltimore and in San Francisco's liberal salons, to muscle sweeping climate change legislation to narrow passage Friday.

Pushing for the vote while uncertain she would win it was the highest-stakes decision of the San Francisco Democrat's career. President Obama, joined by former Vice President and greenhouse guru Al Gore, worked the phones to woo the backing of reluctant Democrats from coal states, farm states, manufacturing states and poor states.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in from the hallway off the speaker's balcony, thanking "dear Nancy" for overseeing what Merkel called a sea change in U.S. policy on climate change.

For all its muddy compromises, and those to come in the more conservative Senate, the climate legislation would begin to tilt the equation of energy policy in the United States, capping greenhouse gas emissions for the first time, boosting production of renewable electricity, investing in clean-energy technology and attempting to loosen the vise grip that foreign oil producers hold on the nation's economic and foreign policy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holds a red button labeled "easy" as she is appluaded by Congressional Democrats following the House passage of legislation on Friday, June 26, 2009, intended to address the threat of global warming and transform the way the United States produces and uses energy. STEPHEN CROWLEY/New York Times

Tauscher stays

The 219-212 vote was so close that Walnut Creek Democrat Ellen Tauscher, confirmed by the Senate the night before as the nation's top arms control official, delayed her resignation until after passage. Tauscher spent much of the day presiding over the historic vote, fending off GOP delay tactics and taking an emotional moment to bid farewell to her colleagues and announce her wedding today.

Tauscher was late to her pre-nuptial dinner after Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio staged what looked like an old-fashioned Senate filibuster, using his privileges as a leader to spend more than an hour ridiculing page after page of the bill and delaying the final vote until well into the evening.

When he relinquished the floor, Pelosi gave a fist pump. "No matter how long Congress wants to talk about it," she said, "we cannot put off the future."

Still, her decision to seize a brief window before the July 4 recess to push through the contentious legislation could leave Democrats at risk in next year's midterm elections. The legislation arrives as gasoline prices and unemployment are rising along with sea levels. With the economy stuck in deep recession, the promise of fresh taxes on energy, the economy's most basic input, is a big risk for Democrats and a potential opportunity for Republicans.

No guarantee

Nor is there any guarantee the legislation will clear the Senate, where failure would leave vulnerable House Democrats hanging with nothing to show for a risky vote. Such a course would parallel the infamous BTU energy tax proposed by President Bill Clinton nearly two decades ago. That tax cleared the House by a single vote cast by a hapless Pennsylvania first-term Democrat who promptly lost her seat after the Senate buried the bill.

Senate passage will be in the hands of California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, an ardent proponent of cap-and-trade limits on greenhouse gases who often clashes with conservatives. Boxer plans action in her Environment and Public Works Committee by the end of July and believes she laid a path through the minefield of regional interests in a trial run on a similar bill last year that secured 54 votes, before Democrats added to their Senate majority in November's election.

'A moral issue'

Pelosi framed the legislation as a national security issue, a health issue and above all "a moral issue for us to pass on God's beautiful creation to the next generation in a responsible way."

Her opponents, including nearly every Republican and 44 Democrats, warned that the legislation is economic suicide, and the "most colossal mistake ever in the history of the United States Congress." They warned that imposing caps on carbon dioxide will raise energy prices and force more manufacturing to China and other nations that do not limit greenhouse gases while doing little to limit global warming.

The bill would raise energy costs for consumers a postage-stamp's worth a day, according to Democrats relying on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, or by $1,500 a year according to opponents who contend the costs are woefully underestimated.

For all the politics at play on both sides, the debate was often emotional, pitting Democrats who believe they are opening a new, clean-energy frontier for economic growth against Republicans who pleaded with waverers to "save our country" from economic ruin

"Dozens of burgeoning companies at the cutting edge of green technologies are poised for an explosion in innovation," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto.

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Fresno, in a reference to oil-rich Venezuela's president, retorted: "If you like getting your oil from Hugo Chávez, you'll love getting your breakfast, lunch and dinner from him too."

Losing jobs

Democrats, some of them from the industrial Midwest, said jobs have already gone to China under GOP energy policies and reminded Republicans that former President George W. Bush bemoaned the U.S. "addiction to oil" in the same chamber.

The legislation split coastal Democrats from their newer colleagues in the more conservative interior from labor union and farm-heavy states such as Michigan and Missouri.

Working with Los Angeles Democrat Henry Waxman, the bill's chief author, Pelosi was forced to accept key compromises with farm-state Democrats led by Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the Agriculture Committee chairman Pelosi bowed to last year to enact a costly and anachronistic farm bill.

Farm groups fear that higher energy prices could feed into their fuel and fertilizer costs. Peterson won major concessions that could open a lucrative new agricultural market for carbon offsets gained through no-till farming and reforestation, as well as protection for corn-based ethanol.

In April, when Pelosi began cobbling together the fragile Democratic coalition behind carbon dioxide limits, she showed reporters a black desk statue of a coal miner, carved out of anthracite. She said it was a gift to her father, the late Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., D-Md., from a colleague in the coal-producing part of the state. Pelosi's father passed it on to her when she was elected to Congress in 1987.

She also displayed the statue to members from coal states, she said, to show them that their interests would not be ignored. In fact, Pelosi gave what many Democrats felt were overly generous emissions allowances to coal-fired electricity plants.

"We're all going down that path together, or else we can't go down that path," she said. "And we must go down that path."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

Key provisions of climate and energy bill The House legislation calls for: Reducing greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 by allowing pollution permits to be bought and sold. Limiting emissions from major industrial sources, including power plants, factories and refineries. Agricultural emissions would be exempted.

Controlling carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and limiting six other greenhouse gases.

Allowing companies to meet emission-limiting targets by investing in offset projects such as tree planting and forest protection.

Requiring electric utilities to produce at least 12 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 and save up to 8 percent in energy efficiency.

Imposing tighter standards on new coal-fired power plants and providing $1 billion a year to capture carbon dioxide from such plants.

Establishing standards requiring new buildings to be 30 percent more energy-efficient by 2012 and 50 percent more efficient by 2016.

Protecting consumers from rising energy costs by giving rebates and credits to low-income households.

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