Peninsula Clarion: Murkowski: Congress not ready on climate change

Congress is returning to work after its August recess with two blockbuster issues on its plate, health care reform and climate change, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce last week. 

One of these, the climate change "cap and trade" bill passed by the House of Representatives and now in the Senate, would impose big costs on Alaska, she said. 

Climate change may get bogged down, however. 

Health care reform will be taken up first, and if Congress gets into extended wrangling over health care in the next few weeks there may not be an appetite to take on a second contentious issue, cap-and-trade, this year, Murkowski said. 

"If we get mired down with health care for a couple of months, it may be December before we get to climate change," the senator said. There are further complications is the issue gets pushed into 2010, an election year, she said. 

"We're not ready for prime time on this," the senator said. The cap-and-trade bill was rushed out of the House by the Democratic leaders with little debate and the allocations of free carbon credits among various industries as House leaders rushed the bill showed Congress at its logrolling worst, the senator said. 

"The cap and trade mechanisms in the House bill are untested and there is great potential for abuse" in the allocation of carbon credits, she said. 

"To this point, the allocations went to who was barking the loudest," the senator said. 

Cap-and-trade poses unusual challenges to Alaska because Alaskans have few alternatives is using fossil fuels, for example in transportation. Small rural utilities which depend on diesel, and have no renewable energy options, would have to purchase emission credits, raising the local fuel cost. 

On health care, Murkowski said there may be a scaling back of the comprehensive reform proposals now before the Senate and House as Congress returns to work. The venting of anger in public meetings over the August recess, over multiple issues, has taken the steam out of one controversial part of the reform package, a "public option" for health insurance, Murkowski said. 

The public option would involve an expansion of current government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. It became a target of public ire during town hall meetings around the nation. 

"My crystal ball is a little fuzzy on what is going to happen, but it's possible that some pieces of a health care reform package could pass," she said.

One part of the package that has wide support is insurance reform, which would put limits on the ability of insurers to deny health coverage because of pre-existing health conditions or other issues, she said.

Murkowski said she was disappointed that there has been almost no discussion of tort reform as a part of the package. 

Something needs to happen on health care even if it's incremental, Murkowski said. "We're on an unsustainable path" in the nation's health care system, she said.

By:  By Tim Bradner. Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion on September 09, 2009