Expect a surprise cap-and-trade vote in the Senate

Elizabeth Letchworth Former U.S. Senate Secretary
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This week in the Senate may prove to be a big week for the cap-and-trade issue even though most Hill watchers will see the Senate debating the highly publicized financial reform bill. Ever since Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pulled his support and co-sponsorship in late April of the soon to be unveiled cap-and-trade bill by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass), most believed the prospects for this issue coming up in the Senate this year were severely jeopardized by the senator’s withdrawal. If you add to that, the recent and very tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that disaster would seem to serve to further put at risk the scheduling of any bill in the Senate this year. Finally, in a May 5, 2010 CBO report, the Congressional Budget office reported that capping and reducing U.S. greenhouse gases would result in large decline of employment, specifically saying the coal industry would suffer a decline between 10 percent to 18 percent by 2015. Combining all of these factors together, most logical people would bet that the issue was completely dead this year. However, actions this week in the Senate might just prove that assumption wrong.

Staff is working to get together an agreement for a very important vote in the Senate on the cap-and-trade issue before the scheduled Memorial Day recess, which is slated to begin May 28, 2010.

The way it works is this. Back on the Dec. 15, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency issued rule regarding the dangers and health hazards of greenhouse gases. This agency over reach caused Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to introduce a resolution to disapprove this agency action under the Congressional Review Act (PL 104-121) This law permits Congress to review and disapprove any federal agency rule by means of a fast-track legislative process. Under the law, a Senator needs to introduce a resolution of disapproval within a certain period of time, gather a minimum number of signatures to force the resolution out of committee and then the joint resolution become available for Senate consideration. As of this writing, Sen. Murkowski has complied with all of the steps needed for a vote in the Senate. She has 40 co-sponsors including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Sen. Murkowski mentioned in her Senate floor statement back in Jan., 2010 that she believes that the new rule from the EPA will hurt our economy, saying that specifically businesses will cut jobs, housing will become more expensive and all goods will be less affordable as a result of this EPA rule. Some of these assertions made back in January by Sen. Murkowski are now echoed in the CBO report from May 5, 2010.

Since the senator has fulfilled all of the requirements, the Senate Leadership has no choice but to schedule the debate and the vote. Under the law, the measure receives up to 10 hours of debate and amendments are not permitted. A majority vote is required for passage of the disapproval resolution. An identical resolution has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Rep. Barton’s House Joint resolution has garnered 115 co-sponsors. If the Senate and House were to be successful in adopting this resolution, it would land on the president’s desk for his signature or veto. The constitutional veto timelines then apply including the congressional vote requirements.

Notwithstanding these carefully choreographed steps, the cap-and-trade disapproval measure still has many stages remaining in this journey that might lead to the president having to take a stand. However, a big first step will occur in the next couple of weeks in the U.S. Senate. Who would have ever imagined that cap-and-trade would receive such a high level, well-defined vote in the United States Senate, in this election year? To that end, this writer was in the Senate during the debate and passage of the original Congressional Review act back in 1996. The EPA rule issued back in December is a perfect example of why the creators of the Congressional Review Act designed the fast-track disapproval process. They specifically wanted to give Congress a voice when agency regulators and bureaucrats over reach.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of GradeGov.com.