Thursday, July 18, 2013 | 1:52 p.m.
The Western wildfires should compel Congress to start debating climate change, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday.
“Talk about climate change as if it really exists, not beat around the bush,” Reid said, when asked what Congress could do to combat the problem of fires.
It’s not the first time Reid has publicly stated his thoughts about climate change. Next month, in fact, he’ll be hosting his sixth annual symposium in Las Vegas to consider technologies to help avert its worst effects.
But the spate of wildfires in recent weeks, particularly the raging Mt. Charleston blaze, has pushed Reid to use his congressional pulpit to call for a fresh take on what he believes is the underlying issue.
“The West is being devastated by wildfires. Millions of acres are burning. Millions of acres have burned. Why? Because of climate change!” Reid repeated Thursday, a day after telling Nevada reporters that because “we have climate change, things are different.”
For Reid, the federal government’s responsibility in addressing these natural disasters isn’t just in crafting sweeping energy legislation that would address climate science – an all but non-negotiable hurdle in a Congress where a Republican House majority has a decidedly pro-carbon fuels stance.
It is also in designing a budget that will allow the federal government – namely the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service – to address the problem so that fires do not further exacerbate the already-tenuous climate crisis in the ecosystems being affected by wildfires.
Reid told Nevada reporters on Wednesday that “this is something we can’t do on the cheap.”
“We’ve got to address our ability to fight these fires,” Reid added Thursday. “We don’t have enough money to continue to fight these fires.”
No more cuts, Reid says
Firefighting and fire-prevention activities aren’t the only areas where Reid is taking a hard look at the budget – and deciding that the federal government needs to be committing more resources, debt or no debt.
“We’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about human beings,” Reid said Thursday, in a plea to Republicans to not push for more cuts at the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
“Join with us,” Reid said. “Break away from the people who are trying to stop everything that’s going on in America today because they’re afraid of a primary.”
That’s the date that the government’s borrowing limit – better known as the debt ceiling – is met. Over the last few years, Republicans have often demanded cuts in exchange for giving their permission to raise the debt ceiling, arguing that the national debt – presently almost $16.9 trillion – is already too high.
That balancing act is what led to sequestration: In the summer of 2011, a "Super Committee" was appointed to find $1.2 trillion in cuts to offset a debt ceiling hike of the same amount; when its members failed to do so, sequestration cuts went into effect.
Reid, who had a great deal of influence in designing the sequester, has doggedly campaigned to reverse its effects in recent months.
“We’re going to be unrelenting in telling the American people what sequestration is doing to us,” Reid vowed Thursday.
And he promised not to make a similar deal for another debt ceiling extension.
“The debt ceiling is not going to be something we compromise on,” Reid said – a sign to Republicans that he would not entertain demands to offset the borrowing extension with budget cuts.
Republicans too, have objected to the sequester, though their objections have been primarily concerned that the significant cuts to military and security spending – 50 percent of the entire sequester – are too ponderous.
Wary of that fact, Reid said Thursday that while he wants the Senate to consider separate agency appropriations, he is not about to put the ones around which there is usually less controversy – namely, defense and military bills – on the floor before the Senate has tackled budgets for housing, health, education and transportation.
“We are not going to be gamed by having the military programs funded at a much higher level than Head Start programs,” Reid said. “We are not going to be stampeded.”
Education loans resolution coming
Despite obviously bracing for a fight on budgetary matters, Reid was visibly more conciliatory than he has been in recent months, lending his support to compromise legislation to lower student loan rates – despite having sidelined the effort just a week ago.
“It’s a bipartisan compromise, led by eight or nine senators who did a wonderful job,” Reid said. “Is it what I want? I would rather have something different. But I’m going to take this bill…I’m going to bring it up as soon as I can.”
Reid added that the bill would be retroactive – meaning any student who took out an educational loan with the higher rates that took effect on July 1 would have their rate lowered to the levels the compromise bill sets.