Historic Energy Legislation Survives Narrow House Vote

Cornerstone bill would cut greenhouse gases, carbon emissions

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President Barack Obama, seen here with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said the new energy legislation is "a bold and necessary step" in the right direction. (Source: Getty Images)

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an historic energy bill Friday night during a nail-biting vote. The outcome appeared tenuous almost until the last vote was counted. When the count reached 218, lawmakers began to cheer, and the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 narrowly passed with a vote of 219 to 212.

The sweeping legislation, co-sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), seeks to cut greenhouse gases by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and nearly 80% by 2050. It is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda and Friday night’s victory will help strengthen his position when he travels to Copenhagen in December to participate in international negotiations on a new global climate change treaty.

His weekly address, which was originally expected to focus on healthcare reform, was changed after the climate bill passed and used to praise House Democrats.  “Today, the House of Representatives took historic action with the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act,” Obama says.  “It’s a bold and necessary step that holds the promise of creating new industries and millions of new jobs; decreasing our dangerous dependence on foreign oil; and strictly limiting the release of pollutants that threaten the health of families and communities and the planet itself.”

For the first time, limits would be placed on carbon dioxide and other pollutants from power plants, factories, refineries and other industrial operations. It would also force a shift from coal and other fossil fuels to more efficient forms of renewable energy.

One of the most fiercely contested elements of the bill is a cap-and-trade system in which the federal government would mandate that companies must have allowances for every ton of greenhouse gas they emit. The companies can buy or sell those allowances but they will be reduced gradually over time. Republicans have frequently charged that the provision is tantamount to taxing the air Americans breathe and places the U.S. industry at a competitive disadvantage with China and other countries that do not impose such controls. Some lawmakers, including several Democrats, contend that it also places a disproportionate burden on coal-dependent regions or areas that do not produce enough solar or wind energy.

Unlike with the majority of legislation that passes through the House, most of these votes were based on regional, rather than ideological, differences. “This was a tough vote,” says a jubilant Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip. Some members who had tough campaigns during the last election cycle, Clyburn explains, couldn’t afford to vote for legislation that was opposed by their constituencies back home. Others felt they had to vote their districts’ interests over what may be best for the nation. In the end, eight Republicans voted for the bill, while 44 Democrats voting nay.

For example, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a candidate for the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, voted against the legislation. He says: “It’s a bad bill for my state and your obligation is to vote first and foremost in the interest of your state.”

When asked what helped Democrats win the close vote, Clyburn says, “respecting each member’s sensitivities and working with them on those sensitivities—even those who in the final analysis couldn’t see their way to vote for this. I think that if there’s a key [to success] here, that’s it.”

The vote followed a day filled with impassioned debate, compromise and probably even a little arm-twisting as Democratic leaders scrambled to whip up the 218 votes needed for the bill’s passage. On Thursday and Friday, uncommitted lawmakers heard from administration officials, including the president, who hosted a luau at the White House on the eve before the vote.

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