A move by the Obama administration to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions was intended to get Congress moving on global warming legislation, but the message was largely lost on lawmakers mired in the health care debate.
Their response to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson: Climate change will take a back seat to health care.
“If health care doesn't get off this table, we are never going to move on to anything else,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a supporter of the House climate change bill passed last summer.
Jackson announced late Wednesday a proposal to mandate new electricity plants, oil refineries and factories to acquire permits to pollute and to use the latest technology to decrease emissions.
While the announcement was not a surprise, it was clearly timed to prod Congress into moving faster on passing comprehensive legislation aimed at addressing global warming. Jackson released the proposal just hours after Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a Democratic climate change bill in the Senate to a lukewarm reception among the party's critical faction of moderates.
“The EPA is ready to work with Congress,” Jackson said. “But we're not going to continue with business as usual while we wait for Congress to act.”
Congress appeared indifferent to the EPA threat as lawmakers worked frantically to pass a health care bill, Obama's top legislative priority, by year's end.
“I've been focused on health care,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the author of the House global warming bill, said when asked about the EPA announcement.
The House narrowly passed a climate change bill in July that includes a provision to require polluters to buy permits through a cap-and-trade system. The Senate is now struggling with its own legislation and will have a much more difficult time agreeing on a method to regulate emissions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been vague about whether he will attempt to pass a carbon bill this year. He has said he plans to combine it with a much more popular energy bill that would set a renewable energy standard and would open the Gulf Coast to oil and gas drilling.
Reid downplayed the EPA announcement, saying it would only indirectly influence the debate.
“It's just a small part of what we are trying to do with the legislation,” Reid said.
The EPA move may have an effect, though, if health care passes.
McDermott and others say they believe that at that point, climate change legislation will take center state, and lawmakers will begin paying attention to the fact that the administration is moving ahead of them.
“I'm not sure the reality that the federal government will be regulating emissions is fully appreciated by members of Congress, but with the EPA now taking these steps, very soon it will be,” said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., a key negotiator on the House climate change bill.