Health and climate change vie for boost in Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama may be pressuring Congress as no U.S. president has for decades as he aims to get two big domestic goals passed this year -- reforming health care and fighting global warming.

A spectator applauds as President Barack Obama delivers his primetime address to a joint session of the Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington in this February 24, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“It’s not impossible to do both, but that would be more than a Congress has ever given a president, maybe since the first First 100 Days,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow Stephen Hess, referring to the start of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” presidency in 1933.

A further time constraint may be the pressures imposed by the campaign next year for congressional elections in November when the seats of all 435 U.S. representatives and a third of the 100 senators are up for grabs.

Congress in the past often has shown itself to be unable to handle more than one big issue a year, but Obama and his fellow Democrats, who control the Senate and House of Representatives, see a window of opportunity this year to pass two long-standing Democratic goals.

Expanding health care to the uninsured and reducing pollution associated with climate change would have an economic impact on nearly every consumer and most U.S. companies -- from health insurers and utilities, to oil refineries, ailing automakers, steel manufacturers and small businesses.

Nonetheless, Democratic leaders are giving it a run, placing both initiatives on a fast track -- with or without much Republican support.

“The one that has the highest probability of making it is health care,” said Bruce Josten, an executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He noted a full legislative agenda later this year, including annual spending bills, a Supreme Court confirmation and tax legislation, could crowd out a climate bill debate in the Senate.

Nevertheless, several congressional committees are pushing ahead with their review of the bill that aims to cut industry’s carbon dioxide emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 with alternative energy sources and energy efficiencies.

The bill’s prospects are strengthened by an unusual coalition of environmentalists, corporations and labor unions that have joined the effort. Obama is trying to sell climate change legislation as much more than doing something good for the environment. “Green” job creation and weaning the country off of foreign oil are his major talking points.

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According to several Democratic lawmakers, the White House is already working hard to woo Senate Democratic and Republican moderates who will hold the keys to obtaining the needed 60-vote majority in the 100-member Senate.

In the meantime, environmentalists are heartened that four months into Obama’s presidency such wide-ranging legislation is advancing, even with its concessions to some industries.

“If it became law today it would be the most important piece of energy and environmental legislation Congress ever produced,” said one activist.


Of the two, health care might be the bill that is more likely to reach Obama’s desk for enactment by year’s end. Both houses of Congress hope to blend their respective bills into a compromise measure by October -- Obama’s deadline.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy has a major role in drafting the new health care bill as head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The bill would require individuals and businesses to purchase insurance and prohibit insurance companies from refusing to cover anyone because of health history.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said for the next five weeks, the Senate’s normal three-day work week will be extended to five so a health care reform bill can be passed.

“I want to emphasize what the president said, that health care is an absolute priority,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a member of the House Democratic leadership, when asked by Reuters about the two bills’ prospects. “But we believe we’re going to do both” in the House, he added.

In the midst of a deep economic recession and with medical bills contributing to an estimated 60 percent of U.S. personal bankruptcies, providing health care for those without insurance is paramount to Obama.

Fifteen years ago, then-President Bill Clinton tried to keep a campaign pledge to enact universal health care, only to fail miserably. That contributed to significant Democratic losses in the 1994 congressional elections.

Since then, the health care problem has worsened with medical costs escalating and 46 million uninsured. Democrats claim they’ve learned their lesson about unfulfilled promises.

They still have to find a sound way to pay for expanding health care, a tough job amid staggering U.S. budget deficits.

Republicans keep hammering away at any proposed government-run health insurance. “A government plan could undercut private health plans, forcing people off the health plans they like,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned.

Behind the scenes, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pressuring her lieutenants to speed up work on the climate change legislation, which won strong backing last month from the politically diverse House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Pelosi hopes to pass this bill in June or July. Even if the legislation were to go no further this year, Obama would have a major accomplishment to tout in December, when world leaders are set to meet in Copenhagen to discuss global warming.

But the legislation likely would result in higher energy bills for American consumers, an especially difficult sell during a recession.

Additional reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by Eric Beech