Does healthcare win leave climate in better shape?
The passage of President Obama's healthcare reform package prompts the question: what might it mean for climate change legislation?
Will it clear the path for a climate bill this year, as some believe?
Or has politicking over the healthcare bill poisoned the well of goodwill in Washington, as others argue?
Around the turn of the year, things were looking fairly bleak for proponents, with delays in bringing the Kerry-Boxer bill (which evolved from the Waxman-Markey bill approved by the House of Representatives in the summer) into the Senate.
Then came the vanilla-coloured accord from Copenhagen, and the Republican triumph in the Massachusetts election for the formerly Democrat seat of Edward Kennedy; many wise heads on both sides if the US political divide were arguing that the tortured progress on healthcare effectively meant the end of Boxer-Kerry, which could well in turn mean the end to any prospect of a negotiated, global deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Now that the healthcare reforms are apparently here (pending a likely Supreme Court challenge by disgruntled Republicans), it's clearly an opportune time to revisit the issue: so obviously opportune, in fact, that Grist magazine was moved to use the most jaded title for a blog entry I've seen in a long time, "The inevitable 'What Does Health Care Reform Mean for Climate Legislation' post".
Grist doesn't come to a conclusion, but its explanation of the senatorial numbers game is worth a read if, like me, you sometimes need a refresher on the intricacies of super-majorities and reconciliations and other details of Congressional procedures.
If and when a bill does go forward, however, it will be a very different beast from the original bill. When that was clearly going to stumble, a cross-party group of senators - the Democrat John Kerry, the Republican Lindsey Graham and the Independent Joe Lieberman - convened to write something that they thought might have a greater chance of success.
Twenty-two Democrat Senators, at least, want to push ahead on this immediately; they sent a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid at the tail end of last week saying:
"Our lack of a comprehensive clean energy policy hurts job creation and increases regulatory uncertainty throughout our economy...We need to take action in order to lead the emerging sectors that will drive our economic recovery."
In this they are echoing the language used by Mr Obama since the turn of the year, seeking to recast the climate bill in terms of jobs and economic recovery, which his advisers clearly see as a more attractive way to frame the message.
And it appears that their wish may be granted, with Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman reported to be on the verge of submitting it to the Environmental Protection Agency for analysis of its costs and benefits.
Precisely what is in the new bill has not yet been disclosed. But leaks in the US media suggest it is likely to be considerably weaker than Boxer-Kerry.
Those of you with wonkish tendencies can head to The Wonk Room for a measure-by-measure comparison. But the main points of difference, if the rumours turn out to be accurate, would appear to be the sector-by-sector phasing in of emission caps, the limited scope of cap-and-trade, and greater support for nuclear power, offshore drilling and possibly "clean" coal.
The bill would reportedly require the cancellation of many state-level legal actions that are vexing the corporate sector, and could even lead to negation of the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate to control carbon emissions.
Some reluctant senators are - again, reportedly - being wooed with the promise that their coastal states will receive a share of the income from offshore drilling.
The problem with giveaways is that what placates one group can end up alienating another. And these are not trivial issues; billions of dollars are at stake, and it's not surprising therefore that some senators who have been generally supportive are now finding reasons to baulk.
As in many countries, businesses are divided on the measure. While some detest anything that might disrupt what they see as essential freedoms, others are urging legislators to set down a coherent policy framework for the next decade at least in order than they can make better-informed investment decisions.
Many of the old heads remember the Bush years and calculate that the new bill is the only game in town; politics is after all, as Bismarck noted 150 years ago - 40 years after Fourier described the greenhouse effect - the art of the possible.
Some of these groups may be able to live with support for offshore drilling. But less palatable morsels might soon occupy their plate.
Logically, the net impact of the new bill on greenhouse gas emissions - if the rumours are broadly correct - ought to be less than the cuts of 17-20% from current levels by 2020 that were promised during the presidential election campaign, contained in the Waxman-Markey bill and pledged to the international community around the Copenhagen summit.
If that turns out to be the case, then we may see a weakening of support among the environmental movement, with, presumably, a concomitant weakening of support from green-tinged senators.
The political pathways become even harder to guess at when you factor in the influences that other issues and events may have.
If, as some liberal commentators suggest, poor Americans feel themselves to be better off over the next few months as their access to affordable healthcare increases while rich ones find that reforms have not brought the sky down on their heads, will that give the climate bill added support?
What of reforms to the financial sector, of relations with China, of the weather?
If the prospects of passing a climate bill appear impossibly finely-balanced, there is one other question that deserves attention: would the bill make any real impact on climate change?
At least one liberal commentator is already arguing that it would not; that the prospects of a meaningful bill are so slight as to render the entire edifice merely a mirage.
There's an echo of Copenhagen here. Would a "bad deal" be worse than no deal? The UK's position leading up to the talks was that it would be, and that the government would not support an outcome that did not contain several key ingredients.
Yet in the end it did, along with many other governments that had similar reservations about the Copenhagen Accord.
Why? Because it was all that was possible, and because emerging with something permits a victory jig, however tuneless, whereas empty hands beg only a humbling.
For those reasons, one suspects the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill will enter the Senate at some point this year in a form that has been melded to garner as much support as is feasible.
Whether it passes is another matter. But it is surely more likely to be tabled, and more likely to pass, than if Mr Obama were licking his wounds (or having corporate health providers expensively licking them for him) in the aftermath of a healthcare defeat.