Democratic divisions stall U.S. cap-and-trade

April 8, 2009

John Kemp Great DebateProspects for enacting a cap-and-trade program regulating U.S. greenhouse gas emissions later this year have receded following a vote in the Senate exposing deep divisions within the Democratic Party.

On April 1, 26 Democratic senators broke with the majority of their colleagues and both the party’s Senate leaders to join all 41 Republicans voting for an amendment to the annual budget resolution forbidding use of the budget reconciliation process to pass climate change legislation involving a cap-and-trade system.

In effect, the amendment ensures approval of a cap-and-trade system will require a minimum of 60 votes rather than a simple majority of 50 in the 100-member chamber. Since Democratic leaders do not currently have anywhere like that number of votes for the measure, and little time to build popular support, it is going nowhere in the near term.


Budget reconciliation is a two-stage process intended to expedite passage of important spending and taxing bills the federal government needs each year to maintain its operations:

* First, reconciliation instructions are included in a budget resolution instructing one or more congressional committees to recommend legislative changes to bring levels of spending, taxation or debt into conformity with overall totals laid out in the budget resolution itself.

* Second, committee recommendations are packaged into one or more “reconciliation bills” considered under special procedures on the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Reconciliation is especially important in the Senate, where the tradition of unlimited debate allows even one senator to block passage of legislation by threatening to filibuster it.

Proponents of controversial legislation need to muster 60 votes to invoke Senate Rule XXII (cloture, or motion to proceed), in order to cut off debate and move to a vote on the substance of the legislation.

Contentious bills therefore require two majorities: a super-majority of 60 votes to prevail on the motion to proceed, then a simple majority of 50 votes to prevail on the substantive motion. In practice the real battle centers on the motion to proceed because it is harder to win.

The reconciliation process is crucial because it curbs unlimited debate. In the Senate, debate on a reconciliation bill is limited to 20 hours, after which the chamber can continue to consider amendments but without further debate. Because there is no filibuster, the effective majority needed to pass legislation drops from 60 votes to 50.

Reconciliation was originally intended to expedite passage of tax and spending bills. It was never intended for other legislation, and the process contains safeguards to prevent it being misused to pass other bills. But the safeguards are flexible. In the past, reconciliation has been used to force through controversial measures that would not otherwise be able to secure the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster.

Cap-and-trade could easily have been presented as a budget measure subject to reconciliation because permit sales would raise revenue for the federal government — and those revenues have already been included in the president’s outline budget.

Alive to this risk, opponents have moved to exempt cap-and- trade from the reconciliation process, ensuring it will still need 60 votes to pass.


The Democratic Party currently controls the Senate with a majority of 58 (56 Democrats and two independents caucusing with them).

But the party is deeply split on proposals to implement a cap-and-trade program that would raise prices for consumers and penalize states with a heavy industrial base or large fossil-fuel resources.

Party leaders and the Obama administration cannot count on 60 senators to overcome a filibuster — which is why proponents were hoping to leave open the option of presenting it as a reconciliation bill that would need only 50 votes.

The extent of the Democratic Party’s divisions was on display in last week’s vote line up:

* Voting for the amendment (and therefore against using reconciliation) were 26 Democrats from Midwestern and industrial states (10) plus Democrats from conservative states and those in the heartland (16).

* Voting against the amendment (in favor of using reconciliation) were 31 Democrats from the west and east coasts (23), plus senators from grain states that would benefit from any move away from fossil fuels (2), the party’s floor leaders (2), and only a handful of others representing the interior (4).

The vote illustrates the fault line within the Democratic Party between legislators from coastal and liberal states who favor cap and trade, and those from industrial and conservative areas in the Midwest and rest of the country worried about a popular backlash in response to higher energy prices and the implications for local industry.

The administration will need to buy off many of these Midwestern and conservative senators to have any chance of enacting a program.

President Barack Obama foreshadowed this effort when he told reporters recently the administration would probably have to give permits away free to some industries in the early stages to build support. It will also have to mount a major public relations campaign to build popular support.

But given the crowded congressional agenda and the competing demands on the president’s time, it will almost certainly be impossible to mount a major lobbying effort and get cap-and- trade enacted in 2009, which puts the effective date of any scheme back until at least 2012 or 2013.


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Dear Sir;

the critical issue for Climate Change is energy efficiency and conversion to non fossil fuel in transport. Any policy enacted by Congress will be a compromise which in effect will push out any target dates to well beyond the ability to do anything materially important in a short time fram..
Deftly put. This is theatre of a low sort. America has lost confidence in its institutions; governmental, corporate, financial, religious, etc. Congress has more to worry about than climate change. Its protected status is under threat from the people they serve at every front.

Posted by CLN | Report as abusive

I agrees with Mr. John’s headiness and being myself non-American,we are closely monitoring the days after USA election.It’s so interesting to see the new “God and Goddess” is still on the honeymoon kissing campaign trail in Europe. The media like CNN and BBC is so much entangled in their relations that they goes extra length to project the new “Saviour of America”. Mr. Obama must speak from his personal point of view rather than dragging USA for the past undone mistakes.On the economic front, he is loosing every second to India and China and on superpower he is dragging his weakness to the terrorist with his speeches and live executive orders with 10 pens.

Posted by Peter Vaz | Report as abusive

Obama will have to conduct a massive public relations campaign directly to the public in order to get this done. Many voters understand the issue and they can be mobilized.

He must frame the problem in the crisis mode he’s used re: Wall Street. But it will be a real challenge of communications and persuasion.

Posted by beezer | Report as abusive

On April 1st Bloomberg News carried an article titled “EU 2008 Carbon Dioxide Emissions Exceed Permits by 25 Percent”. According to the article: “Power plants and factories in the European Union’s emissions trading program produced 25 percent more carbon dioxide than the amount of permits they received, according to Bloomberg calculations based on European Commission data”. It appears to this observer that the EU cap-and-trade system is not working as expected.

Posted by S. Hellinger | Report as abusive

If the government cared about greenhouse gas emission, it would simply try to cap it. In actuality, the government cares only about the extension of its power at the cost of individual prosperity, hence the fact that the solution it comes up with involves more money from you to it. It is the most astounding fraud (like most government “solutions”) and I don’t understand why so many people support it. Doesn’t it ever dawn on some of you how government ideas almost always involve collecting more of your money?

Posted by Russ in PA | Report as abusive

S. Hellinger – the EU cap-and-trade system is working exactly as expected… the goal is not to reduce emissions, it is to increase taxes, which has been an overwhelming success. And, the fact that targets have not been reached presents an opportunity for even more success… if the the current system is not reducing enough emissions, obviously they need to increase the price of credits.

Posted by Russ in PA | Report as abusive

And so the arguments go between our elected officials and all the countries of the world. All jockeying for the best payback of one sort or another. For anyone who wonders where we are really headed, I’d suggest reading this article entitled “We Can’t Get There From Here” published by Newsweek in March.

Here’s a snippet from the article that shows the huge problems involved which will not be solved any time soon, if at all. Meanwhile, the population bomb keeps ticking. So suck it up folks and hope for fusion power which is still a dream on the distant horizon.
Lewis’s numbers show the enormous challenge we face. The world used 14 trillion watts (14 terawatts) of power in 2006. Assuming minimal population growth (to 9 billion people), slow economic growth (1.6 percent a year, practically recession level) and – this is key – unprecedented energy efficiency (improvements of 500 percent relative to current U.S. levels, worldwide), it will use 28 terawatts in 2050. (In a business-as-usual scenario, we would need 45 terawatts.) Simple physics shows that in order to keep CO2 to 450 ppm, 26.5 of those terawatts must be zero-carbon. That’s a lot of solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and nuclear, especially since renewables kicked in a measly 0.2 terawatts in 2006 and nuclear provided 0.9 terawatts. Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now. Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy – something we don’t know how to do – for when the wind doesn’t blow. Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then. “It would take an army,” he says. Obama promised green jobs, but still…

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

I find it amazing that here the comments are clear regarding cap and trade yet the Congress just doesn’t get it.
1. Get the transportation industry off of oil. We can produce cleaner energy than from burning oil based fuels.
2. Ban incandescent lighting. Encourage the production of an affordable LED light bulb. This will take a large burden off the grids and allow for a smoother transition to an electric transportation industry.
3. Encourage distributed power generation to supplement the power companies output. Basically, Self sufficient homes that can produce more energy than they need from wind, solar and geothermal and return that excess back to the grid.
4. Fund the creation of power stations to replace gas stations.
5. Tackle real pollution and let’s not be subject to fear mongering about CO2.
6. My next suggestion is radical. Convert coal burning power plants to natural gas.
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels
– Pounds per Billion Btu of Energy Input
Pollutant Natural Gas Oil Coal
Carbon Dioxide 117,000 164,000 208,000
Carbon Monoxide 40 33 208
Nitrogen Oxides 92 448 457
Sulfur Dioxide 1 1,122 2,591
Particulates 7 84 2,744
Mercury 0.000 0.007 0.016
I am not sure about the cost difference but I find it hard to believe it would be much more. Granted there would be conversion costs that should be born by the government.

Posted by B. Free | Report as abusive

Nuclear would give co2 free power if it were really a threat to the climate change lobby. The real motivation is another source of taxes for more government programs.

Can someone name all the potential inputs (ie. sunspots, volcanos, etc) that affect climate as well as measure the temperature changes on the moon , planets, stars etc to make sure the climate changing inputs specifically effect earth alone?

What effect does a large number of input variables have on the statistical validity (degrees of freedom)of predictive computer models?

Has anyone been able to test their computer model of future climate in out of sample real tests? ( sea level in Miami one year from today or specific temp changes in the near term, ie. 1 or 5 years)etc.?

costs per KWH ??
solar $.20
wind $.14
coal $.03
nuk $.??

Posted by Ron | Report as abusive

It is always better to fix a leaky roof before the rains come. We knew what was coming and have missed our opportunity. The banks are insolvent, the economy is in shambles and political leadership is as divided and corrupt as ever here in the U.S.. Any solution that involves tax dollars will be coveted by a government that is in debt. The fact remains even the best solutions will bear a cost.

Unfortunately CLN is correct. Conservation and alternative energy use are the only effective solutions at this time. Much can be done to mitigate climate change. However, I don’t know what can be done about a Congress caught up in it’s own vanity. It truly appears as if all of our institutions have failed us. Our nation and it’s leaders suffer from a “Crisis of Character”.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I sure hope we don’t get any cap and trade crap. It won’t do anything to “CUT” greenhouse gases, just to make them more expensive to the consumers. What’s the real penalty for these corporations who exceed their limits? More campaign funding? It’s amazing how people elect people to screw them.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive