House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., this week kicks off a wave of high-profile hearings and markups aimed squarely at the Obama administration’s signature policies--the health care law and global-warming regulations. Also in the line of fire is the administration’s key technology initiative, the FCC’s ruling on network-neutrality rules, which are intended to eliminate content discrimination on the Web.
Upton has had a rocky transition from rank-and-file moderate to his new position as the Republican leadership’s point man, heading the charge against the major pieces of the White House agenda. The influence of tea party conservatives on the GOP has prompted the chairman to take a hard tack to the right--a position that some longtime colleagues say might not always be a good fit.
That discomfort was in full display this morning at a National Journal Live event when Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein questioned Upton on his plans for the committee’s agenda, and on some of his views.
Upton has called climate change "a serious problem," a phrase he deleted from his website last year after declaring his intent to run for committee chairman. On Wednesday, his panel is scheduled to hold the first hearing on his draft bill to gut the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The bill’s language would ban EPA from any regulation concerning “possible climate change.”
Asked by Brownstein for his views now on the scientific reality of climate change, Upton repeatedly evaded the question, pointing instead to his opposition to climate policy that could harm the economy and his preference that climate rules come from Congress.
“Are you saying you are not convinced that climate change is occurring?” Brownstein pressed.
“If you look, the last year was the warmest year on record, the warmest decade on record. I accept that. I do not say that it’s man-made,” Upton responded.
“You believe that the climate is changing, but you’re not convinced human activity is causing the change, is that your position?” Brownstein asked.
Asked if there should be an explicit federal policy to control emissions, Upton replied, “I’m a strong supporter of green energy, including nuclear, which has no emissions.” But when asked if a price should be put on carbon, he replied, “No. It’s a nonstarter.”
Upton’s much-anticipated face-off with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at Wednesday morning’s hearing will be the first formal clash between the administration and the new Republican-controlled House on climate-change regulations, and it could offer a road map of how the conflict will play out. Upton joked that lobbyists are already lining up outside the door to attend the hearing: “It’s $25 to reserve your place in line.”
Upton said he does not have a time frame for bringing the bill to the floor.
He was similarly cagey about whether he will support President Obama's proposed clean-energy standard, which would require 80 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from low- or no-carbon sources by 2035.
“I support a strong number of things that bring a cleaner energy standard to the U.S.,” said Upton, who in 2007 worked with Democrats in an effort to amend a bill requiring 15 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. Upton hoped at the time to expand the definition of that requirement to include zero-carbon power sources, such as nuclear energy--as Obama is proposing.
Most Republicans say they oppose the idea of any kind of energy mandate, but a number of GOP moderates have supported similar language in the past. Upton resisted committing.
“We’re anxious to see the details. We haven’t seen the legislative language. We’ll have some hearings” on the president’s proposal, he said.
Upton said he intends to hold hearings on reopening Yucca Mountain, the long-delayed federal nuclear waste dump in Nevada that Obama wants to shut. Obama has commissioned a panel to examine other solutions for nuclear waste. The issue is a sensitive one for Democrats: Many are quietly supportive of the Yucca project, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has vowed that it will never see the light of day.
In keeping with the Republican Party line, Upton said that the United States needs more offshore drilling but that in the wake of last year's BP oil disaster in the Gulf, he supports increasing fines on drillers. However, he evaded a question on whether liabilities should be increased for oil companies that contribute to environmental disasters.
Upton also said he intends to revisit a 2005 law mandating domestic production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels, such as ethanol, by 2022. “I don’t think we can meet it,” he said.
On health care, Upton said his committee will hold hearings next month with governors and state attorneys general aimed at highlighting legal challenges to and the costs of the 2010 law.
Upton said he supports moving legislation to overturn the individual mandate, which is at the heart of the health law--and he believes he will have backing from some moderate Democrats.
Brownstein pointed out that the individual mandate was first introduced by Republicans in the 1990s as an alternative to President Clinton’s health care plan, and was later included in the Massachusetts health care law that then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, signed. It was also endorsed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Brownstein noted. He then asked Upton, given the mandate’s GOP roots, “What’s wrong with the idea?”
Upton again sidestepped a direct answer. “I know ideas do change, arguments change,” he said.
Meanwhile, Upton said he is working with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan on a replacement health care bill, although he was vague about specifics.
“We are going to stick with the principle that if you like the health care you have, you can keep it.”
On abortion, Upton said he will introduce legislation to codify language that Obama approved last year with an executive order; it prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for health care plans that provide abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother. That language, opposed by many abortion-rights Democrats, was added to the health care package to secure the vote of then-Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a moderate Democrat who supported abortion rights. Upton said he now wants to see the prohibition enacted as law, but he does not intend to move it further to the right by removing the exemptions for rape and incest.
On the contentious issue of network neutrality, Upton reiterated Republicans’ pledge to try to block the order approved by the Federal Communications Commission in December. While saying that a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act was the most likely vehicle to do that, Upton noted that another option available to opponents would be to try to block funding for the FCC to implement the net-neutrality rule. Next week’s likely vote on a continuing resolution for government operations is a possible target, he said, but added after this morning's event that he does not know of a proposal that is expected to be offered at this point.
Juliana Gruenwald contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 8, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.