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Democrats Must Choose Health Care Over Copenhagen

President Barack Obama may be heading to Copenhagen next month for the United Nations’ global climate change summit, but Democratic Senators tasked with moving health care reform will likely stay behind to pass a bill by year’s end.

About a dozen Senators had been expected to attend the 11-day forum, but that was before Democratic leaders planned to spend the entire month of December debating — and voting on — a sweeping health care package. And since Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needs every vote he can get to stave off GOP amendments and pass a final measure, it will be difficult for lawmakers to leave town while the Senate is in session and voting.

So while Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and White House energy and environment chief Carol Browner will join Obama in Denmark’s capital, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will be relegated to the Senate floor to oversee the health care debate. Other leading Senators whose committees have jurisdiction over climate change may also face scheduling difficulties. Among them: Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Despite the potential conflicts, Boxer and Kerry, who are co-sponsoring the Senate’s leading climate change bill, are still holding out hope they can make the trip. The forum is expected to draw some 60 world leaders to draft a set of environmental guidelines to reduce green gas emissions. “This could be one hell of a global game-changer with big reverberations here at home,— Kerry said Wednesday of Obama’s announced trip, which “lays the groundwork for a broad political consensus at Copenhagen.—

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, has a ticket booked for Copenhagen and called Obama’s voyage “the most significant travel reservations ever made.—

Unlike the House, which narrowly passed a cap-and-trade, climate change measure earlier this year, Senators have been unable to reach consensus on the issue. Democratic leaders are hoping to tackle climate change next year in the Senate, but that goal may be difficult to achieve given the political realities of an election year. House Members also have less pressure on the health care front given they narrowly approved an overhaul earlier this month.

Reid has said he’d like to pass a bill before Christmas.

Republicans are equally engaged in health care, but don’t face the same pressure as Democrats, who will need to keep all 60 Members aligned to control the debate. With that in mind, several GOP Senators are taking their opposition to cap-and-trade legislation to Copenhagen. EPW ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) will lead a “truth squad— to the summit, which will feature Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), among others.

Also expected are top administration officials such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, each of whom will “keynote a series of events highlighting actions by the Obama Administration to provide domestic and global leadership in the transition to a clean energy economy,— according to a White House release.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who pushed a cap-and-trade bill through the chamber in June, has remained noncommittal on her Copenhagen plans, as has House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants on both health care and climate change.

The U.N. summit runs from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18. Obama announced Wednesday that he will join the conference on Dec. 9.

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