Welch tries to win Democratic support for global warming legislation

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(Host) Congressman Peter Welch is front-and-center among conservation-minded Democrats eager to take on global warming.

Those standing in the way of aggressive legislation aren’t just Republicans.

As Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports, Welch has made it his mission to win over reluctant members of his own party.

(Johnson) When Welch came to Washington in 2007, one of his first decisions was to make his offices carbon-neutral. This year, he co-founded the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.

(Welch) "We each have a vote, but if we have thirty to forty to fifty members, then we have thirty to forty to fifty votes, and around here, you’ve got to get to 218 in order to be successful, so this is a way of creating a block that becomes a voice for climate change and green jobs."

(Johnson) The coalition has forty members. Most represent coastal states. They meet weekly and forge contacts with Obama administration officials. They helped get tens of billions of dollars in the stimulus package for renewable energy. On the eve of the bill’s final passage, the group’s Co-chair, Washington State Democrat Jay Inslee bubbled with excitement.

(Inslee) "The planets are aligned, and the rockets are being launched tomorrow."

(Johnson) Maybe not so fast. Getting federal funding for renewable energy is the easy part. Even coal-rich Utah and oil-producing Texas have big wind farms. But lawmakers from those states, Democrats included, may balk at legislation that raises the price of burning coal and gas. Here’s Democrat Charlie Gonzales from Southern Texas.

(Gonzales)  "If you are from an energy state, then obvious you know the economic necessity that policies don’t negatively impact your state. It binds you–let me put it that way."

(Johnson) Gonzales says he’s all for reducing carbon emissions. But he worries that drastic actions against the fossil-fuel industry are coming down the pipe fast.

(Gonzales) "If you were to simply say no more coal-fired power plants in a matter of four or five years… the question is how do you produce and deliver affordable electricity?"

(Johnson) The balance of power in Congress does seem to be shifting. Exhibit A: environmentally-minded Democrats staged a coup of sorts this year. They helped California progressive Henry Waxman wrestle chairmanship of the House Energy Committee from Michigan’s John Dingell. Waxman said the auto-industry state titan was stalling climate change legislation. Waxman wants a bill by Memorial Day. Welch has taken on the task of patching together a split Democratic caucus.

(Welch) "You know, we have to acknowledge that there is dislocation when we have to change our policies from a carbon-fuel economy to a sustainable energy policy. We’ve got to work and understand that there are real people in real jobs that are gonna be affected."

(Johnson) Welch’s challenge is to convince enough lawmakers that it’s worth the cost… and that fighting climate change will lead to economic boom not bust.

From Capitol News Connection, I’m Elizabeth Wynne Johnson for VPR News.

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