A House vote in 1993 laid the groundwork for an important upcoming House vote on climate change legislation.

In 1993 then-Vice President Gore led the Clinton Administration to propose increasing the taxation of energy. Called the “BTU tax,” the Administration proposed to tax the energy content of a fuel source, measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs).

Democrats were in the majority, and 218 of them voted for the bill containing the BTU tax. 38 House Democrats and all 175 House Republicans voted no.

The three vote margin of victory suggests that House Democratic leaders had to twist the arms of reluctant Democrat Members to vote aye. In this scenario, if you are a House Democrat who does not have a strong view on the substance but is nervous about the politics of voting for higher energy taxes, you would like the bill to pass (so that your leaders get what they want and stop pressuring you) without your vote (so that you don’t give your opponent back home an effective line of attack).

The Senate Democrats, who were in the majority, promptly dropped the BTU tax without a vote. They also made it clear they would not accept a BTU tax in the final conference report on the bill.

Those nervous House Democrats who had voted for the bill with the BTU tax had the worst of all worlds. They had cast a costly political vote for no policy benefit.

A phrase soon entered the legislative vernacular. Senate Democrats had “BTUd” House Democrats.

Fast forward to 2009.

The House is considering climate change legislation authored by a key subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). House Republicans, along with important Democrats like Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), are vigorously opposing the bill, calling it a “cap-and-tax” bill that would raise energy costs.

All indications from the Senate are that legislation similar to the Markey bill is extremely unlikely to pass the Senate this year.Two important votes in the Senate budget resolution debate sent incredibly strong signals about the Senate’s intentions:

  • 67 Senators, including 26 Democrats, voted against creating fast-track reconciliation protections for a cap-and-trade bill, meaning that supporters would need 60 votes to pass a bill, rather than 51.
  • 54 Senators, including 13 Democrats, voted for an amendment that would allow any Senator to initiate a vote to block any climate change provision which “cause[s] significant job loss in manufacturing or coal-dependent U.S. regions such as the Midwest, Great Plains, or South.”

These votes suggest that there is not even a working majority in the Senate for an aggressive cap-and-trade bill. When an actual bill with measurable and visible costs is debated, I expect Senate support to be even weaker.

The conventional wisdom is that Speaker Pelosi will make the House vote on a version of the Markey bill. With 254 House Democrats, she has a wide margin (36 votes) to ensure passage, but she could easily have important House Democrats like Mr. Dingell making a similar case as House Republicans, that the bill should be opposed because of the higher energy costs for consumers.

Imagine that you are a House Democrat from a conservative, manufacturing-heavy, or coal-heavy district. Whether or not you privately agree with the substance of the bill, and no matter what your view is on the importance of climate change, you will be asked to cast a politically risky vote for a bill that looks certain not to make it to the President’s desk.

You might say to your leadership, “I am more than willing to vote for this bill if you tell me that we can get the policy benefit of a signed law.” But if the Senate is going to BTU us again, why should I have to take a political risk?”

A cap-and-trade bill is highly unlikely to make it to the President’s desk this year. Even so, this year’s votes will set the terms of debate for future legislative efforts, when there might be a higher probability of legislative success.