Columns » John Brummett

Political climate



Everyone may be left happy enough eventually by this climate bill debate.

That's except for those seriously wedded to a carbon tax as an essential tool to save the planet. Those people probably are going to be left out in the global warmth, I guess you could say.

President Obama needs to show the Democratic Party's environmentalist base and the more progressive-minded of our international allies that he supports the Kyoto notion of capping carbon emissions and charging extra for use in excess of the cap.

Liberal Democrats in the heavily Democratic House of Representatives, bedeviled by those two-year terms, need to show their ecologically idealistic constituents the same thing.

Last week's mostly party-line vote of 219 to 212 to pass this bill in the House served those purposes.

Arkansas's rural conservative Democratic congressmen, Marion Berry in eastern Arkansas and Mike Ross in the southern section, needed that vote to show their constituencies they weren't in favor of these perceived liberal affronts to our very way of life.

By joining 40 other Democrats in defying the White House, they displayed quintessential rural Arkansas Democratic behavior and tended to their needs at home without derailing the broader Democratic agenda. That's a politician's get-out-of-jail card — tacit permission, that is, to play to his home grandstand without inconveniencing his party's national agenda.

Obama said Sunday that he wasn't mad at those no-voting 44 House Democrats because everyone has a local situation. He can say that when he has 44 votes to spare.

These poor rural sections of our state rely economically on taking from the land and chasing the last few smokestacks, such as a coal-fired electric plant. Environmental activism of any description frightens them; they turned down Al Gore in 2000 for that very reason.

They've not changed much in nine years, because rural Arkansas hasn't, except that the economic insecurity is even greater. They worry in rural Arkansas about limiting what commerce they do have. They figure charges on power companies for carbon emissions above a limit will amount to taxes on their bills.

Now the bill goes to the U.S. Senate where Republicans will call the usual filibuster and require 60 votes, a threshold that probably can't be achieved. Democrats might have tried to push the bill by a simple majority through use of the process called budget reconciliation, but several key Democrats joined Republicans in March in a 67-to-31 vote to prohibit use of that bold tactic on climate reform.

Democrats kept the option to use budget reconciliation on health care, which makes a telling and vital point about priorities.

The Democratic senators from Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, whose statewide constituencies include Berry's and Ross's, will shock me to the very core if they vote for this climate bill or to end debate on it.

More to the bigger point: Obama is not strung out on cap-and-trade. It's not the ball game. Health care is.

This cap-and-trade matter could harm him only in one respect and only if he repeats the mistake of Bill Clinton, whose presidency he basically is rerunning and refining.

Clinton, trying in his first year to bring down the deficit and attend to the environmental wing, included in his budget-deficit proposal a tax on the heating content of fuel, or BTUs. He leaned hard on the House, which passed it narrowly. Then the matter stalled in the Senate.

Desperate for the budget bill, Clinton was then forced to stand by as senators took out the BTU tax before they voted. Thus Clinton wound up having forced House Democrats to imperil their careers to vote for something he didn't even care enough about to leave in the bill when senators voted. Or so it seemed.

House Democrats reeled and resented him and Republicans soon took over the Congress.

Obama's only possible mistake on the climate bill, one he assuredly will not make, would be to care enough about passing something that he would let senators amend out of this bill the more controversial provisions on which House members have taken a brave stand.

He is fortunate that, unlike Clinton's typical predicament, his energy tax is not tied to an essential budget package.

Obama can afford to let the climate bill stand as passed by the House. (There's some protectionist language added in the middle of the night that he wants extracted.)

He can afford for the Senate, confronted by his take-it-or-leave-it demand, to leave it.


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