After months of haggling, he still doesn’t have a deal that moderates will support. On Wednesday, he had to back offhis threat from a day earlier to skip a key subcommittee vote after members raised a ruckus. And, to top it all off, the president and others are breathing down his neck to wrap up work on climate change so that Waxman can turn his focus to the blockbuster fight of the summer over health care reform.
“Henry has some decisions to make,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), a key moderate voice in the negotiations. “Everyone has been very clear about where they need to be to get to ‘yes.’ ... The chairman has a very good read of the committee.”
This is the first real test for House Democrats since Barack Obama moved into the White House. Failure to move this climate change measure through the chamber would be a body blow to the whole party — even if isn’t going anywhere in the Senate. And negotiations, to this point, have only highlighted the divisions Waxman must try to bridge.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) came to the defense of the legislation on Wednesday, telling reporters, “We will be on schedule to move the energy bill, make no mistake about it. It’s our highest priority.
“The committee is going to work its will on its own timetable,” Pelosi said. “But it will fit in the timetable to move it so we can move on to health care.”
Making that timetable a reality largely falls to Waxman, whose trials and tribulations are the spoils of a long-sought chairmanship. The California Democrat, who waited decades to take over for Michigan Rep. John Dingell on the Energy and Commerce Committee, is now struggling to overcome generations of lawmakers loyal to his predecessor. Waxman finds himself stuck between his longtime allies in the environmental community and a key bloc of moderate Democrats who want to protect local industries from daunting new costs established under the bill.
The chairman gave ground on Wednesday by dialing back his suggestion a day earlier that he would bypass the Energy and Environment Subcommittee. “It’s important for me to consult with my members,” Waxman said in explaining his reversal of comments he made Tuesday — in almost the exact same spot — suggesting he might skip a long-awaited subcommittee vote to meet his self-appointed Memorial Day deadline.
Waxman still left the door open for skipping over the subcommittee if a vote there would push the chairman past his Memorial Day deadline. “We’re still looking at the same deadline,” Waxman warned Wednesday.
But the suggestion continued to not sit well with many Democrats on the subcommittee.
“I would not like to see the subcommittee deprived of its jurisdiction,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who’s looking formore money for low-income households to offset higher energy costs.
Waxman’s dilemma, however, runs much deeper than last-minute procedural concerns. His bill has emerged as a major flashpoint for Democrats in the House, with party leaders debating its political risks last week during a closed-door session in the speaker’s conference room.
Throughout, Waxman has maintained an open dialogue with members worried about protecting parochial interests. Staff and member-level talks continued throughout the day on Wednesday, as Waxman and his deputy — Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey — tried to broker a deal. And all sides are still saying all the right things to broker a final compromise.
Doyle said members were “really close” to finding consensus on the main portion of the bill — how to distribute pollution allowances to manufacturers, utilities and other industrial ectors.
“It’s always those last little things that are the hardest to do,” said Doyle.
A majority of the permits will be given away for free in the early years of the program, said Doyle, until international agreements and new technology can offset the increased costs of complying with these new requirements.
But Waxman has to cut a deal in the next week to make his Memorial Day recess deadline— an ambitious timeline for such a complex bill with a profound impact on the American economy.
The legislation has created a clear split in the Democratic caucus between the ambitions of environmentalists seeking to mitigate the impact of global warming and the resistance of individual House members who want to protect their own backyard.
On Tuesday, with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln peering over his shoulder, Obama told the assembled Democrats that this legislation provides them with that rare opportunity to rise above parochial concerns to enact a bill with a profound national impact.
“I thought it was a pretty powerful appeal,” said Washington Rep. Jay Inslee.
During the meeting, Waxman told the president he wants to finish the climate change measure sooner rather than later so he can turn his attention to the health care bill. Others present suggested they hold off on climate change, Waxman told reporters on Wednesday. But Obama told them to just keep moving.
Pelosi, who has staked her speakership on the dual issues of climate change and energy security, has been fairly hands off to this point in the process, telling reporters on Wednesday that she has not gotten her hands dirty with the “day-to-day” of the committee.
Instead, she has let Waxman and Markey work with their members to build legislation that could survive a committee vote. But the speaker is stepping up her support as critics come out of the woodwork to question the political — or policy — wisdom of moving forward with this package.
“As I’ve said to my members, we’re all going down this path together,” Pelosi said. “This is not leaving anybody out. And that takes some time. But I believe it will be done this year.”