Politics & Policy

Bill Frist’s First Big Test

John McCain, front and center.

Aside from appearing frequently on the Sunday talk shows and making an occasional pro-segregationist gaffe, most people don’t have the foggiest idea what a Senate Majority Leader actually does. But the Majority Leader serves an important political function: He must settle Capitol Hill turf fights.

And in his first week on the job, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is already facing a crucial test, one that will set an important precedent and tone for his tenure as Majority Leader.

Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.) announced this week that they hope to introduce legislation designed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, ostensibly to hold global warming in check. Sen. McCain is chairman of the Commerce Committee which is scheduled to hold hearings on greenhouse-gas restrictions Wednesday afternoon. Sen. Lieberman will testify at the hearing.

But the question of global warming — and what, if anything, the U.S. Senate should do about it — falls under the jurisdiction of Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“We still haven’t heard anything from the Commerce Committee about their hearing,” Gary Hoitsma, a spokesman for Sen. Inhofe told NRO. “We’re not generally supportive of [Sen. McCain’s] approach to climate-change issues, and any legislation having to do with climate change would have to go through our committee,” he said.

For their part, the McCain team admits that global warming is Sen. Inhofe’s territory, but they say they will proceed anyway, since “a lot of what we’re trying to do [in the Commerce committee] affects other things, including transportation and scientific research,” one McCain aide told the Washington Post.

This is where Sen. Frist comes in. Parliamentary squabbles such as this are politically damaging if allowed to drag out because they needlessly pit Senate members from the same side of the aisle against one another.

But an aide to Sen. Frist told the Post “it’s a little early” to know how the Majority Leader will handle the matter. That’s troubling. Given the stakes — both political and economic — Sen. Frist better decide fast.

And if Sen. Frist doesn’t act quickly, the White House might want to pressure him to act, since the McCain-Lieberman approach to global warming slams headfirst into the Bush administration’s own efforts this week to kick start the American economy, an effort already being blasted by Democrats (and some Republicans like McCain, who criticized the Bush tax cuts on NBC’s Today Show Tuesday).

According to the Washington Post, McCain and Lieberman want to put a national cap on CO2 and other emissions relating to energy production (like electricity or home heating and cooling). They would establish a trading system that would allow utilities and power plants to buy credits from companies that have reduced emissions beyond their targets.

In other words, it’s a straightforward cap-and-trade proposal that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, amounts to a huge tax.

“The economic impacts of cap-and-trade programs would be similar to those of a carbon tax: both would raise the cost of using carbon-based fossil fuels, lead to higher energy prices, and impose costs on users and some suppliers of energy,” the CBO says in its “Evaluation of Cap and Trade Programs for Reducing U.S. Carbon Emissions” report.

“The higher prices for energy and energy intensive products that would result from a cap-and-trade program,” the report continues, and “would reduce the real income that people received from working and investing, thus tending to discourage them from productive activity.”

This should be especially troubling to Sen. McCain, who on Tuesday criticized the Bush economic plan and its tax cuts, saying “I would like to see [tax cuts] redistributed more heavily to middle-income and low-income Americans.” But the energy-tax legislation being considered at Wednesday’s hearings is significantly regressive in nature. Lower-and middle-income earners spend a far greater proportion of their income on energy needs than do upper-income earners. An energy tax sticks it to those least able to bear the extra burden. Worst of all, it is a tax based on inconclusive science and environmental alarmism.

Sen. McCain — who at times appears more interested in carrying water for Sen. Lieberman’s presidential aspirations than helping his own party — knows how to position himself shrewdly in Capitol Hill knife fights and knows he is posing a direct challenge to the new Majority Leader. Sen. Frist can demonstrate where authority now rests in the Senate by permanently handing jurisdiction over climate-change issues to Sen. Inhofe, the Environment Committee chairman, whose office says is already planning hearings on the science of climate change in 2003. Sen. Frist should encourage Sen. McCain, as Commerce chairman, to introduce legislation that actually encourages, rather than retards, American commerce.

Bill Frist has demonstrated an interest in working closely with the White House to enact the president’s agenda. Socking it to poor and middle-class Americans in the form of John McCain and Joe Lieberman’s energy-tax plan hardly makes for compassionate conservatism.

Nick Schulz is editor of TechCentralStation.com.


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