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World Intersects at House Energy Panel

After waiting for decades to take over one of the most powerful committees in the House, new Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is plunging headfirst into the heated debates over energy policy, global warming and health care reform — politically charged issues fraught with economic peril that fall under his new panel’s purview.

The Californian vowed to pass legislation in all three areas last November, when he made the surprise announcement he would challenge the 82-year-old dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), for the energy gavel. While some political insiders and policy experts have urged caution in taking up such big-ticket items in a tanking economy, Waxman said recently he intends to move full-speed ahead on his pledge, even if it means getting ahead of President Barack Obama’s agenda.

“We’re going to start moving on these issues,” Waxman said in an interview last month. “We certainly want to work with the administration, but I don’t think we have to wait until they’ve completed all of their work on a proposal.”

The massive $825 billion economic stimulus that passed the House last week contains a hefty down payment on key aspects of the agenda. Renewable energy and efficiency measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would see tens of billions of dollars under the plan, which also invests $20 billion in long-sought improvements for health information technology.

Waxman said various subcommittees will work simultaneously on his broader agenda, but he’s already laid out a Memorial Day deadline for advancing comprehensive energy and global warming legislation through the full panel. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last month that she’s aiming for a vote on the bill before international climate talks get under way in Denmark in early December. A Senate timetable has not been determined.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who as chairman of the new Subcommittee on Energy and Environment has been tasked by Waxman for getting the climate ball rolling, last month said he will build upon existing cap-and-trade proposals, including one authored last year by Dingell and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.). Under cap-and-trade, the government determines an annual limit on total greenhouse gas emissions and allocates emission credits that can be traded, banked or sold, to meet the cap.

While cap-and-trade has emerged as the preferred Congressional approach for addressing global warming, finding consensus on the numerous details of the complex scheme remains a key hurdle to passage. For instance, parochial splits are likely to emerge among Democrats on the Energy panel over such details as how the emission credits are distributed, as well as the schedule for reducing emissions.

Markey, Waxman and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who also sits on the panel, last year spelled out a list of stringent climate principles backed by more than 150 House lawmakers, while more moderate Democrats such as Dingell and Boucher will legislate with an eye on the economic impact of the plan on their respective auto- and coal-producing districts.

Inslee downplayed the Democratic divisions in a recent interview, emphasizing what he termed a “pretty broad and deep consensus” among Democrats everywhere for curtailing carbon dioxide emissions.

However, he acknowledged tough negotiations lie ahead for committee Democrats.

“Different geographic regions are going to have to work together to find resolutions to these concerns,” he said.

Meanwhile, committee Republicans, who have never embraced cap-and-trade to begin with, will likely seek to exploit Democratic divisions over coal and nuclear in an effort to shape the legislation.

However, Markey predicted some Republicans will break ranks and back the bill, noting growing support in industry for climate legislation, driven in part by a desire for the regulatory certainty that will accompany cap-and-trade.

“When CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are testifying before Congress asking for climate change legislation, I think that creates a climate that makes it possible for real Republican support for a real climate change bill,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the House will press a separate comprehensive energy bill, as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) intends, or simply roll cap-and-trade and other energy items, such as the federal renewable electricity standards favored by Waxman and Markey, into a single package.

Waxman declined to comment on his plans, but he noted that he sees energy independence and global warming as one and the same issue. “They go so much together that I think we have to get beyond doing one as opposed to the other,” he said. “I think we’ve got to do them both together.”

The timing for sweeping health care reform is similarly murky. The Obama administration has said little on the issue since the inauguration, but there is a growing sense among many Democrats that Congress should seize on the current favorable political climate to achieve this longtime goal.

“I think the opportunity we have now, at this time, to change this system is the greatest we have ever had,” Waxman said in a December health care speech, during which he rejected out of hand the notion that health care reform is too costly to tackle in a recession. “We will not successfully address the problems of our economy unless and until we address health care reform,” he said.

Key Senators, including ailing Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), have also signaled they’d like to move this year on sweeping reform proposals.

But House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) raised concerns among reform advocates last month when he said he favored incremental steps to advance health care, such as expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which cleared the House in January. “I would much rather see it done that way, incrementally, than to go out and just bite something you can’t chew,” he said in a C-SPAN interview.

Advocacy groups, however, continue to urge Congress to pass a reform bill this year. “Now is not the time to take small steps to solve big problems,” said Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager for the liberal group Health Care for America Now.

Regardless of the timing, work is already under way in the House. Under a deal struck with Waxman after his ouster as chairman, Dingell will take a lead role in negotiations on universal health care legislation, a longtime goal of the veteran lawmaker. However, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) will continue as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health; he recently signaled he will begin hearings on the subject in the coming weeks.

Separately, Waxman has also said he’d like to bring generic biologic drugs, which include vaccines and anti-toxins, to the market, while furnishing the Food and Drug Administration with new authority to regulate tobacco and control drug advertising, and increase inspections of foreign drug and food products.

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