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No It's Not 1994 All Over Again--not Yet

According to today's Politico, some House Dems are fretting that Obama's climate proposals will suffer the same grim fate that health care reform did during Bill Clinton's first term. DCCC chair Chris Van Hollen, for one, has started warning that the House should "move cautiously" on the big Waxman-Markey energy bill if it's just going to die in the Senate anyway. He doesn't want vulnerable freshmen Dems to get screwed the way they did in 1994, when the House held a nerve-wracking vote to approve a (small) energy tax increase that got nixed by the Senate and turned out to be a Dem-killer in the midterms.

Indeed, the 1994 analogy has been sprouting up a lot lately. One environmental lobbyist recently told me he never goes anywhere without his dog-eared copy of The System, David Broder and Haynes Johnson's minute-by-minute chronicle of Clinton's failed health care push. As then, you have a Dem president with an ambitious and controversial proposal (cap-and-trade) that's being greeted with near-unanimous Republican opposition and fierce industry lobbying. And public opinion on global warming is quite malleable. That said, I'm not convinced the 1994 analogy is apt—at least not for the time being.

It's true, Henry Waxman hasn't lassoed up enough votes to move his big carbon-reduction bill through subcommittee. Coal-state Dems and Blue Dogs are still dissatisfied with some of the bill's details (see Kate Sheppard's round-up of the main objections). Industry groups, meanwhile, are spending a lot of money trying to derail the whole debate. The American Energy Alliance has started airing radio ads in the districts of swing voters on the energy committee. (Among other things, the ads repeat the line that the carbon-cap provisions would cost families $3,100 per year—a figure debunked by the guy who wrote the study being cited.)

But none of that squabbling has hit the critical stage yet. What will ultimately make or break the climate bill, it seems, is the White House's leadership. So far, Obama hasn't really waded into the debate over Waxman-Markey. Everyone knows he'd like a climate bill, but he hasn't thrown his shoulder behind specific legislation, or undertaken a sustained public push for the bill, or even started twisting any arms in Congress. As Phil Radford, the director of Greenpeace, recently told reporters, "I think right now Waxman is negotiating from a position that he doesn't have leadership from Obama." That's spot on, though that dynamic may soon change: The White House is meeting tomorrow with select House swing votes to chat about health care and cap-and-trade.

The big question ahead is how well Obama will be able to sell a climate bill, both to his own party and to the voters. Clinton stumbled on this point, to put it delicately. Obama, for his part, never really had to focus on salesmanship during last year's election, in part because McCain also supported a cap-and-trade proposal and didn't attack Obama over the details that will certainly face scrutiny in the months ahead. "You had two people aspiring to the presidency who had both been vocal supporters of paths to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," Jason Grumet, a top energy advisor for Obama during the campaign, told me. "The contest was principally about identifying contrasts. So you didn't see the kind of scrutiny or aggressive messaging about caps as you might have otherwise."

There's one other major difference between the current climate debate and the health care fight under Clinton. Back then, once Republicans scuttled health care reform, that was that. The issue was dead. This time around, however, the EPA still has the legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases on its own—and will do so if Congress fails to move legislation. (Some legal experts even think the EPA could implement its own cap-and-trade regime on greenhouse-gas emissions, bypassing Congress entirely.) Apart from stray comments from a few members of Congress, that reality hasn't sunk in yet, but it does make outright opposition less tenable, and a repeat of '94 a lot less likely.

--Bradford Plumer