In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

American climate change legislation

Posted 10/1/2009 by Grant Mitchell


Still in Washington, we have been hearing a lot about the Waxman-Markey Bill which has recently passed through the House of Representatives. It is now in the Senate waiting for consideration there. Today, its progress will be affected by a bill that is being presented by Senators Boxer and Kerry. Their bill pushes beyond Waxman-Markey bill.

In the US Senate, a bill generally starts in one of the standing committees. It then goes to the full Senate to be considered. This is unlike the Canadian system, where bills receive what is called first and second reading, where they are debated in the Senate Chamber, before going to the committee stage. Generally in Canada, although by no means always, bills start in the House of Commons and once passed, they come to the Senate. The bill must go through first reading, second reading, committee and third reading in both Canadian Houses before becoming law.

Now the question in US is: how will the Senate decide between the Boxer-Kerry and Waxman-Markey bills? Well there are really four choices. They can simply accept the Waxman-Markey bill, the easiest solution because they would not have to return it to the House of Representatives. Or, they could amend Waxman-Markey, or accept Boxer-Kerry as is, or accept Boxer-Kerry with amendments. In each of these latter three choices, the approval of the House of Representatives will be required. So, how do you get approval from the House of Representatives when it has approved something different than what the Senate will have approved? The Senate and House must set up a joint committee and work out a compromise that is acceptable to both houses. Once that is done, the legislative product is presented to both houses for approval and it becomes law.

Will it happen and will it happen before Copenhagen? Senator Kerry is noted to be a very effective manager of legislation in Congress while Senator Boxer is seen to be strong on policy but less able to manage legislation through the approval process. The profiles of these two Senators show a real commitment on the part of the Democrats to get it through. But, there is the prevailing question as to whether the US and Obama are served better by going to Copenhagen with a strong position but not one etched in legislated stone. This way they might have better flexibility and leverage in negotiations.

This strategy has gained strength from the Waxman-Markey Bill passing the House of Representatives; a very strong statement. The American position would be furthered strengthened by having the Boxer-Kerry Bill through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This will very likely occur since Boxer and the Democrats control the committee. They cannot guarantee that it would pass the full Senate because if the opposition has more than 40 Senators they can filibuster and kill the bill. They probably have more than 40. So, the Senate majority leader has said that the bill will not be brought to a vote until January. This is probably okay.

What is very interesting is that there is so much momentum for climate change action here. And no one is really saying that no action is an option. It is frustrating that we do not see the same momentum in Canada.

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