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Seeking Traction, Democrats Turn to Energy

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
June 22, 2007

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The new Democratic majority in Congress began its tenure pushing an ambitious agenda including everything from immigration to climate change to pulling out of Iraq. But, as the New York Times noted recently, “Congressional Democrats headed home for their Memorial Day recess with only a few signature accomplishments on the domestic front.” More notable so far are the retreats. Democrats backed off (CNN) an attempt to force a timetable for Iraq troop withdrawal, and failed to pass (ChiTrib) a controversial bill on immigration.

With much fanfare, Democrats now turn to energy security. The Senate debate on the bill, experts say, offers little hope for sweeping change. The bill managed to pass (CQ) the Senate with an increase in fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. In an interview with CFR.org, Bryan K. Mignone, a Brookings Institution scholar, wondered how Congress can pass politically difficult measures such as a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions if it has such trouble passing a relatively modest increase. The target—thirty-five miles a gallon—is below standards already in place in Europe, Japan (PBS), and China (AP).

The Economist notes that American fuel efficiency regulations, which were somewhat tough in the 1970s and 1980s, “have lost their bite.” Democrats and environmental groups want new fuel economy rules (mp3), also known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which they believe would help reduce dependence on oil imports. But some lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, favor the auto industry, which contends that new CAFE standards would hurt business. Carmakers are pushing for “more realistic time frames.” They are enthusiastic, however, about provisions in the bill promoting greater use of biofuels such as ethanol (NPR).

More politically sensitive legislation on a cap-and-trade program is being crafted by Democrats in both chambers. Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change told CFR.org that he believes such a measure has a chance of passing in this Congress. But an editorial in the Sacramento Bee argues that the legislation will face an uphill battle. As this Backgrounder points out, the Bush administration and many Republican lawmakers fear an emissions cap would also harm American competitiveness.

Some experts, as the Economist has noted, believe that a carbon tax may be an even better model. Emissions trading schemes have a “mixed track record abroad.” (SFChron) But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) points out a fact of American political life. “I fall into the cap and trade thing,” she said, “largely because I don’t see a carbon tax ever getting enacted in the United States.”

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