By: Lisa Lerer and Patrick O'Connor
June 25, 2009 08:43 PM EST
Democrats narrowly passed historic climate and energy legislation Friday evening that would transform the country’s economy and industrial landscape.
But the all-hands-on-deck effort to protect politically vulnerable Democrats by corralling the minimum number of votes to pass the bill, 219-212, proves that there are limits to President Barack Obama's ability to use his popularity to push through his legislative agenda. Forty-four Democrats voted against the bill, while just eight Republicans crossed the aisle to back it.
Despite the tough path to passage, the legislation is a significant win for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) and the bill’s two main sponsors – House Energy and Commerce committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey (D) – who modified the bill again and again to get skeptical members from the Rust Belt, the oil-producing southeast and rural Midwest to back the legislation.
“We passed transformational legislation which takes us into the future,” Pelosi said at a press conference following the vote, after she and other leaders took congratulatory phone calls from Obama, former Vice President Al Gore and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“It has been an incredible six months, to go from a point where no one believed we could pass this legislation to a point now where we can begin to say that we are going to send president Obama to Copenhagen in December as the leader of the of the world on climate change,” said Markey, referring to world climate talks scheduled this winter.
After months of negotiations, 211 Democrats and eight Republicans voted for the bill of more than 1,200 pages, setting the legislation on a path towards the Senate. There, it faces a far more uncertain future given the opposition of key moderates and the already-heated battle over health care.
Republicans are sure to try and use against other Democrats in 2010, with accusations that they raised electricity bills for already-strapped consumers in the midst of a deep recession.
Indeed, the National Republican Congressional Committee wasted little time before blasting out a press release targeting more than two dozen Democrats for supporting “Democrats’ ongoing crusade against economic recovery.”
“I’m in a tough spot. I really am,” Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), one of the Democrats who opposed the bill, said before the vote, citing his fears the legislation could raise energy costs and hurt the coal industry in his low-income, rural district.
“Either way I’m going to get creamed.”
Democratic leadership attempted to protect their most vulnerable freshman by cajoling yes votes from more senior members such as Lloyd Doggett of Texas.
Doggett announced his change of heart from “strong objection” earlier in the day during the final stage of the floor debate.
Doggett told POLITICO that he made his switch after speaking to Obama and having lengthy conversations with Waxman, Markey, Gore and Pelosi, but ultimately, he decided to support the bill so he could have a seat at the negotiating table when California Sen. Barbara Boxer introduces it in the Senate later this summer.
“It has been a difficult and significant decision,” Doggett said. “I just decided that I will have a better chance to make changes later in the process if I acted in good faith now. But don't think this means I'm signing off on the conference report,” he said.
When the bill passed, the chamber erupted in applause, and colleagues shook Markey and Waxman's hands. Even some Republicans clapped, mocking the Democrats for casting what they deemed a politically unpopular vote.
The vote itself proceeded with much less drama than hung in the chamber for most of the day leading up to the much anticipated roll call; Democrats looked relieved and Republicans resigned as they watched votes register on the big board above the House floor. Fence-sitting Republicans such as Washington Rep. Dave Reichert and New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance waited to vote “yes” on the bill, in a game of chicken with moderate Democrats.
Many of those moderate Democrats, like freshman Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama, also waited until the end of the roll call to cast votes against the package.
In the end, Democrats had the votes they needed, and many veteran moderates were able to cast votes in favor of the bill without hanging junior Democrats out to dry. One possible exception – Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil, a freshman – accepted handshakes from colleagues after casting an early vote in favor of the package.
The debate leading up to the vote was nevertheless intense.
Democrats touted the legislation as a measure that would improve national security, create jobs, protect the environment and reestablish the United States as a world leader. Republicans slammed the bill as an economic catastrophe.
“I look forward to spending the next 100 years trying to fix this legislation,” said California Republican Brian Bilbray.
“This is the biggest job killing bill that’s ever been on the floor of the House of Representatives. Right here, this bill,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner. “And I don’t think that’s what the American people want.”
Donning reading glasses, Boehner then delayed the roll call vote by reading page-by-page through a 300-page managers’ amendment Democrats added at around 3 a.m. on Friday. Boehner seemed to relish the hour-long stunt, picking out the bill’s most obscure language and then pontificating about what it might – or might not – mean. Republicans laughed along with him and roared with applause when he was done.
The complex bill mandates a 17-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and a 83-percent cut by 2050, reductions that will be accomplished by putting a price on carbon dioxide through a cap-and-trade system. It mandates that 20 percent of electricity comes from renewable sources and increased energy efficiency by 2020. And the legislation gives electric utilities, coal plants, energy-intensive manufacturers, farmers, petroleum refiners, and other industries special protections to help them transition to new, less-fossil fuel-intensive ways of doing business.
It will also raise electricity prices for consumers by $175 a year per household by 2020, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office, significantly less than the $3,000 price hike predicted by Republicans who say the “energy tax” will increase energy bills and the cost of consumer goods.
Obama praised the House for taking a “bold and necessary step,” then wasted no time in turning up the heat on the upper chamber. “Now it's up to the Senate to take the next step. And I'm confident that in the coming weeks and months the Senate will demonstrate the same commitment to addressing what is a tremendous challenge and an extraordinary opportunity,” he said in a statement.
The White House played a significant role in drumming up support for the legislation, which is a key piece of the administration’s first-year agenda. The administration is under pressure to make significant progress towards cutting greenhouse gas emissions before the Copenhagen international climate talks next December.
A long list of Cabinet secretaries, key staffers and even Obama himself lobbied undecided members. Gore, the don of the climate-change world, spent several days calling on the fence lawmakers.
The legislation spilt both the environmental and business communities. Although environmentalists have pushed for stricter controls on greenhouse-gas emissions for more than a decade, more left-wing groups like Greenpeace wanted stronger emissions reductions and fewer protections for greenhouse-gas guzzling industries like coal. While some electric utilities, auto manufacturers, and Fortune 500 companies supported the bill, large business associations like the Chamber of Commerce argued that it would impose a crippling regulatory burden on the economy that would push factories and jobs abroad.
The House chamber took on the feeling of a momentous vote on Friday, with lobbyists, administration officials and even the stray senator –in this case, Udall – working the hallways off the floor to convince fence sitters in one direction or another. After the rule vote, Markey quickly collared Holt for a brief conversation.
“We are fond of seeing headlines that say this is the Democrats’ toughest challenge yet,” said House Whip James Clyburn, tweaking the media’s hyperbole. “Well, today that what quite true.”
He joined many other Democrats in giving the ultimate credit to Pelosi making the difference on the vote.
“Nancy Pelosi was the whip on this,” he said.
-- Victoria McGrane contributed to this story.