An Inconvenient Bill

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 12:11 PM EST

Barbara Boxer celebrated the passage of her climate bill out of the Environment and Public Works committee with a festive gathering for environmentalists and her Democratic colleagues on Tuesday, featuring cookies, coffee, and billionaire philanthropist Ted Turner. It was hard to tell that Boxer was only able to pass the bill out of her panel by skipping the markup, and that the legislation has basically been put on ice until sometime in 2010.

"I think it's important to see how far we've come," said Boxer, motioning to giant cue cards her staff had prepared depicting a timeline of climate legislation developments to date.

But if there's one thing that this week has made clear, it's how far the US has to go. At a meeting with Harry Reid and other committee chairs on Monday, Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus indicated he won't mark up his portion of the climate bill until January. Over the weekend, world leaders agreed to put off a binding global deal until sometime next year.

Boxer, who has long been the Senate's lead voice on climate, acknowledged the reality: her legislation is "an inconvenient bill." The health care debate has pushed the climate issue back repeatedly, and now Boxer and others are indicating that financial reform and perhaps even another jobs-focused stimulus may push ahead of climate on the Senate calendar.

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And time is running out. "It is incumbent upon Sen. Kerry, working with Sens. Reid and Baucus, to make sure that we walk into next year with a plan—a time line, hard deadlines—or this thing is in danger of not happening," said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at Sierra Club, who was present for Boxer's celebration.

Right now, the Senate has set no deadlines. Some think the bill would need to come up for a floor debate by March at the latest, while others suggest Memorial Day recess in May is the cut-off point. After that, Congress takes most of August off, and then the midterm elections will kick off in earnest.

Whether negotiators set a goal in Copenhagen to have a final deal sealed by June (the next major meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) or by the Mexico City meeting in December 2010 will also influence how quickly the Senate acts. Putting on an optimistic face, Boxer suggested that the delay on the international front could help the Senate effort. "We believe, a lot of us, that in some ways this may well be what our colleagues are looking for. They want to see what China is going to do, what India is going to do," she said.

But that's where this turns into a chicken-and-egg situation. In order to have the credibility to push other countries to make firm commitments, the US must show up at Copenhagen with "concrete numbers" for its planned near-term emissions cuts, says Bookbinder. Many have assumed that US negotiators should at least be able to commit to a figure in the range of the emissions cuts contained in the House and Senate bills (17 and 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, respectively.) Boxer, however, cast doubt on that idea on Tuesday. "I don't think there's going to be any consensus on that before Copenhagen," she said.

In other words, climate change legislation isn't getting more convenient anytime soon.