House approves overhaul of environmental policy

Package means a big victory for Obama

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 27, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The House last night narrowly approved a landmark overhaul of US environmental policy, handing President Obama a big political victory with a vote to dramatically limit greenhouse gases and fundamentally alter how the nation produces energy in coming decades.

By a 219-to-212 vote, a deeply divided chamber agreed to a sweeping package meant to reduce carbon dioxide pollution that is blamed for global warming, encourage cleaner power sources such as wind and solar, and mandate conservation measures for electric utilities, buildings, and household appliances.

“There’s a famous poem by Seamus Heaney, in which he says, ‘There’s a point in time where hope and history rhyme.’ I think we have now reached that on the issue of energy and global warming,’’ said Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat who co-authored the 1,200-page bill.

“This is it. This is the historic vote. This is the opportunity to create millions of jobs and reduce our dependency on foreign oil,’’ added Markey, reveling in his hard-fought victory on an issue that he has worked on for much of his 33 years on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The intense fight over how aggressively to combat climate change now shifts to the Senate, where opponents promise to continue fighting legislation that they say will lead to higher energy prices and cost American jobs.

Uncertainty about the final outcome of the proposed law, however, did not diminish the importance of last night’s vote, the most significant plan to counter domestic pollution since passage in the 1970s of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Obama’s calls for significant change in climate and energy, healthcare, and financial regulation have been the centerpiece of his young presidency. A loss on the House climate bill would have sent a signal that Congress is unwilling to support the sort of culture-shaking shifts that Obama has sought.

Obama joined Democratic House leaders in making public appeals and private calls to lawmakers, looking to round up support for what proved to be a critically close vote. The president is eager to get global warming legislation approved before December, when he heads to Copenhagen for talks on an international climate change treaty.

Obama quickly called last night’s victory a “bold and necessary step’’ and urged the Senate to join the House in approval.

Markey and his cosponsor, Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, ran an intense, months-long lobbying campaign capped by a frenetic, final-week effort by the White House and House leadership.

Markey went door to door for months meeting with individual House members and made pleas to virtually every House caucus: the Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the New Democrats, the Hispanic Caucus, the Freshman Caucus, the Sophomore Caucus, and the Blue Dogs, a conservative Democratic group. Waxman and Markey also met with House Republicans, and ended up picking up eight members of the GOP conference in yesterday’s vote.

Yesterday callers to Congress were met with busy signals, as phone lines were literally jammed. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island arrived on the House floor late in the afternoon to vote in favor after being absent for several weeks during substance-abuse treatment.

Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, twisted arms at a festive White House luau for members of Congress Thursday night. Former vice president Al Gore worked the phones as well, calling on his former Washington colleagues to make history. House leaders agreed to various amendments - such as one to give more authority in the proposed law to the Department of Agriculture, pleasing rural congressmen - to cobble together a broader coalition.

Exhausted and exhilarated after months of negotiations, Markey still hadn’t secured the votes as of early yesterday afternoon.

But one by one, “undecideds’’ became “aye’’ votes, and the bill’s supporters prevailed. Yesterday morning, Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, said he planned to vote against the bill, despite a personal effort by Obama at the luau.

“He talked about how he wanted to go to Copenhagen and some other places and show how we’re trying to change,’’ Doggett recalled Obama saying during their 10 minute talk.

Less than an hour before the final vote yesterday, Doggett surprised many of his colleagues by announcing he would vote “aye.’’

The measure would create a “cap and trade’’ system under which the US government would give or sell businesses allowances to pollute limited amounts. Companies could sell or trade those allowances, giving more flexibility to industries while controlling overall pollution.

Some $190 billion would be raised by selling the allowances to pollute; that money would then be directed toward clean energy technologies. Markey’s office estimates Massachusetts would get about $150 million in funds for energy efficiency and renewable fuels. The Bay State would also probably benefit from part of $20 billion directed at producing electric cars.