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Has Congress Abandoned Cap And Trade This Year?

Via Dave Roberts, George Stephanopoulos is suggesting that congressional Democrats may have just decided to prioritize health care over climate policy this year:

George Stephanopoulos says Dems can't possibly pass both healthcare reform and cap-and-trade, and they've effectively chosen healthcare. Dems have supported a plan to push healthcare through via budget reconciliation, which requires only a 50 vote majority. They have not supported a plan to do the same with carbon policy, and "there are nowhere near 60 votes for it," so it's effectively dead this year.

We'll see where this goes—my sense is this year's agenda is still fluid—but a few broader thoughts. If true, I think there's some logic to this decision—and I say this as someone who believes climate policy is more urgent than health care. For one, the health care debate is further advanced than the debate over cap and trade. That's partly because Obama and McCain basically agreed on the need to regulate carbon during the campaign, so they barely discussed cap and trade; instead, they bickered over peripheral issues like offshore drilling and gas-tax holidays. By contrast, health care reform is ripe now. The arguments have been flayed to death. The key alliances formed. Republicans are hopping aboard the reform train. Under the circumstances, it makes sense for Democrats to focus on health care this year, rather than go for broke and jeopardize the whole budget with a thornier climate bill.

Now, the thing is, climate policy can't wait too long. Some scientists have warned that there's a very small window of opportunity left for developed countries to get their emissions under control—if we don't act soon, the Earth's climate might enter tipping-point territory, at which point it could prove impossible to stabilize global temperatures below a desirable level. What's more, the United States is planning to join the Copenhagen climate talks this December to negotiate a successor treaty to Kyoto. If the rest of the world thinks that Congress has given up on carbon caps, they might say "screw this" and abandon their own climate efforts. That doesn't mean Congress has to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2009—just that it has to look like there's a realistic chance they'll pass one fairly soon.

Anyway, climate activists and environmentalists probably shouldn't see this as a ringing defeat. Congress could still pass a number of incremental energy measures this year—from a renewable-electricity standard for utilities to a nationwide grid overhaul—that will smooth the way for big carbon reductions down the road. Then, next year, with health care and the banking crisis hopefully behind him, Obama can make a strenuous push on cap and trade and nudge public opinion. (What's more, the EPA will have started regulating CO2 by then, putting pressure on Congress to stop stalling.) And, if Republicans insist on filibustering indefinitely, it's possible that Democrats could put cap and trade into next year's budget reconciliation bill—there's one per year, after all.

--Bradford Plumer