If people think the health-care debate has been contentious, just wait until the Senate takes up cap-and-trade.  That wait may be longer than first thought, as Democrats in the Senate have less unanimity on the climate-change legislation than on ObamaCare.  After a bruising summer of Democratic discontent, Dick Durbin (D-IL), Harry Reid’s chief lieutenant, feels no rush to start an argument that will further fracture the party:

Several U.S. Senate Democrats, including a top leader, on Wednesday questioned whether it would be possible to vote on a climate change bill this year, especially with healthcare reform eating up so much of the lawmakers’ time.

“It’s a difficult schedule” with many members already “anxious” about healthcare reform, Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, told Reuters when asked about prospects this year for a bill to cap emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

President Barack Obama is engaged in the toughest fight of his presidency in trying to win passage of expanded healthcare. Obama also has called on Congress to approve legislation this year to control climate change by reducing pollutants from utilities, oil refineries and factories.

Besides the need to pass the complex healthcare bill this year, which Durbin said was “first in the queue,” he also noted the need to tackle legislation imposing stricter rules on the U.S. financial industry.

Durbin said it was unclear whether the climate bill or financial industry reform would be a higher priority in 2009.

Politically speaking, that should be an easy call.  While Congress itself bears a large part of the responsibility for the economic meltdown due to its deliberate market distortions in housing and lending, the public wants more oversight on Wall Street.  A moderate bill of reasonable belt-tightening could win significant Republican support and provide a low-key legislative victory for the Obama administration.  That’s exactly what the White House needs at the moment — a breath of fresh air and any indication of competence it can trumpet.

Unfortunately, the problem for Durbin and the White House is that passing anything this unpopular in an election year will be a sure ticket to a House minority for the Democrats.  They’re already on the cusp of losing power in the lower chamber now, but passage this year would make the debate in 2010 less urgent.  Putting off cap-and-trade in the Senate for this year would mean that they would have to wait until 2011 to try again, which would necessitate a new effort in the House — likely with a much less sympathetic composition.

That reality will probably force Durbin and the Democrats to take up cap-and-trade towards the end of this year, but there is no good path to passage.  The Democratic caucus in the Senate will crack along both ideological and regional lines, with coal state Senators looking to stop its advance and the destruction of their home-state economies.  That will make the problem worse for Reid and Obama than what they face now on ObamaCare, and Republicans will stand to gain by opposing in unison yet another massive program of government control over private industry, this time in the energy sector.  The costs it will impose on families are even higher and more direct than with ObamaCare.

In short, it’s a political disaster that Durbin and the Senate Democrats would like to forget, but will be forced to debate to the detriment of their careers, thanks to an administration and House leadership that has jumped fully into a radical economic agenda.