Democrats in Control: Climate, Clean Energy Top Legislative Agenda

WASHINGTON, DC, November 21, 2008 (ENS) – The order of business in the incoming 111th Congress is beginning to take shape. When lawmakers convene on January 6, 2009, Democrats will be firmly in control of both houses, although today the outcome of several elections is still unclear.

When Democratic President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20, both the White House and Congress will be in Democratic hands for the first time in 16 years.

For the environment, this means that climate change legislation will be on the front burner as soon as the new session opens.

The U.S. Capitol at sunrise. November 11,
2008 (Photo credit unknown)

Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who will continue to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced Tuesday that she will introduce two pieces of climate legislation in January.

“The first bill will establish a grant program to reduce global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act with up to $15 billion a year available to spur innovations in clean energy, including advanced biofuels,” Boxer said.

Intended as an economic stimulus, Boxer said the bill follows President-elect Barack Obama’s recommendation.

Obama’s short video statement on climate change played at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit convened in California on Tuesday was “music to my ears,” Boxer said.

Obama said, “Few challenges facing America – and the world – are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.”

“My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process,” he said.

“Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security,” said Obama.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California
(Photo courtesy EPW)

“Clean energy means green jobs,” Boxer said, citing a new report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimating that by 2038, another 4.2 million green jobs could be added to the economy.

Boxer also will propose a bill amending the Clean Air Act that directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set up a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases that meets the goals laid out by the president-elect.

“This bill will reflect the strong partnership we will have with the new administration, and will focus on achieving the emissions reductions needed while restoring the economy,” said Boxer.

Boxer also announced her committee’s first hearing in the 111th Congress. “The hearing will take place as soon as possible after we convene in January, and will be entitled “How Fighting Global Warming is Good for the Economy and Will Create Jobs,” she said.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma
(Photo courtesy EPW)

Senate Democrats will have to contend with Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a climate change denier. In his blog on the committee website, Inhofe claims that the planet is cooler now than when President George W. Bush took office and that Arctic ice is growing, not shrinking.

Over in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Caucus Thursday elected California Democrat Henry Waxman as chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

He replaces Michigan Congressman John Dingell, who has served for the past 28 years as chairman and ranking member of the committee. Dingell now will serve as chairman emeritus, but Waxman’s ascendency marks a shift away from the influence of the Detroit auto industry and towards cleaner energy and climate concerns.

Waxman said, “Some of the most important challenges we face – energy, climate change, and health care – are under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee. In large measure, our success as Congress will depend on how the Commerce Committee performs.”

“Enacting comprehensive energy, climate, and health care reform will not be easy,” said Waxman, but, “The public expects Congress and President-elect Obama to work together to find solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, “Henry Waxman will bring to the post of Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee the outstanding leadership he has demonstrated as chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Under his leadership, the committee and the entire caucus will make progress toward making America energy independent, making health care available to all Americans, and addressing the greatest challenge of our time, global warming,” she said.

Congressman Henry Waxman of California
(Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)

The replacement of Dingell by Waxman could affect the outcome of possible legislation offering financial assistance to the beleagured auto industry, which has requested at least $25 billion to stave off collapse.

Today, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent the following letter to the executives of the Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, calling on them to “submit a credible restructuring plan that results in a viable industry, with quality jobs, and economic opportunity for the 21st century while protecting taxpayer investments” by December 2.

“It is critical that you meet this deadline since we have announced we are prepared to come back into session the week of December 8 to consider legislation to assist your industry. We intend to give pertinent agencies within the executive branch, the Government Accountability Office, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, as well as outside experts, the opportunity to comment on your work,” Reid and Pelosi wrote.

Senator Inhofe calls higher fuel efficiency standards that may be a condition of the potential auto industry bailout, “environmental thuggery.”

In a speech on the Senate Floor Thursday, Inhofe said, “The proposed $25 billion bailout of Detroit now appears to have been hijacked by the powerful environmental lobby.”

Quoting a November 19 article in the “Wall Street Journal,” Inhofe said, “the auto bailout has degenerated into a tool to ‘make Detroit a subsidiary of the Sierra Club.’”

“We hear proponents of the auto bailout endlessly say it’s about jobs,” said Inhofe. “But the truth is, this bailout appears to be about environmental lobbies taking over the U.S. auto industry.”

The Congressional balance of power is set, but the actual seat count is still shifting.

Right now, in the Senate, the Democrats hold 55 seats, the Republicans hold 40, and there are two Independents – Joe Lieberman and Bernie Saunders, who caucus with the Democrats.

Three seats are vacant or undecided.

One Illinois seat is vacant as President-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, has resigned. This seat will be filled by a replacement appointed by a Democratic governor.

Delaware does not yet have a vacancy, but Vice President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, is expected to resign on or before inauguration day, January 20, 2009. His seat will be filled by a replacement appointed by a Democratic governor.

In Minnesota, the seat is held by Senator Norm Coleman, who won the 2002 election. While Coleman leads Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party challenger Al Franken by 215 votes, the race remains too close to call. The close margin triggered a mandatory recount, which began on November 19. The recount is not expected to be resolved for at least a month.

In Georgia, a run-off election between Republican incumbent Saxby Chambless and Democratic challenger Jim Martin is underway.

In the House of Representatives, the Democrats hold 255 seats, the Republicans hold 175, and there are no Independents. Five seats are vacant or undecided.

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