Last week, the House Energy and Commerce committee approved energy and climate legislation that could put the first national cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. Many news reports called the decision a “landmark” and “historic.”

Indeed it was. But the best adjective for the legislative wrangling—as employed by The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle—is “messy.” And it’s likely to get worse. Since House Democrats released a “compromise” (i.e. watered-down on most key provisions) version of the bill two weeks ago, coverage has focused on shifting battle lines on the Hill and off. As such, hard news articles have featured a high degree of balanced, pro/con commentary, highlighting the need for more papers to provide arbitration in staff editorials.

In Congress, the divisions are simple in one respect—the GOP is almost universally opposed to the American Clean Energy and Security Act authored by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey. “Republicans stuck largely to a single script: The bill is too expensive and will wreck the economy,” Keith Johnson noted in a Wall Street Journal blog. California representative Mary Bono Mack was the only Republican to vote for the bill in committee last week.

The more important and complicated division exists within the Democratic majority in Congress. On the energy committee, opposition to the climate bill came from “moderate” legislators from regions that depend upon coal and manufacturing. E&E Publishing, which shares content with The New York Times, did an exemplary job of cataloguing that tug-of-war, and continues to do so as the bill moves on for wider scrutiny in the House. Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn had a particularly useful description of the “maneuvering” that is likely to take place this summer, explaining how agriculture and healthcare interests are expected to join the fray.

Off the Hill, the disagreements among environmentalists and others on the left are just as complicated as they are among Democrats. Grist has an excellent breakdown of those who adamantly support and oppose the bill, as well as those who fall somewhere in the middle (meaning, usually, grudging support that could be withdrawn if key provisions are further weakened).

So far, political compromise has meant weakening the bill’s near-term emissions reductions targets as well as the national renewable electricity standard, giving away the vast majority of emission permits rather than auctioning them, and allowing polluters to meet a large share of their targets through the purchase of international emissions offsets. On the left, battles rage around all of these points.

The crux of the debate is whether the bill can be both politically viable (read: economically benign) and make a meaningful reduction in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s certainly a bewildering jungle of argument and opinion—much thornier, even, than the coverage climate science, where sources of qualified insight are much more limited. Part of the problem for hard news reporters is that there is no consensus-generating body for economic and political predictions, as there is for scientific ones in the form of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This was a subject that I discussed with journalist Eric Pooley in January after he authored an excellent Shorenstein Center report arguing that reporters had failed to recognize an “emerging consensus” among economists that a cap-and-trade scheme would have only a “marginal effect on economic growth.”

While there is still no consensus generating body like the IPCC, a new Web site overseen by almost twenty environmental economists from academia and various advocacy organizations,, is dedicated to aggregating peer-reviewed literature supporting Pooley’s point. New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin called it a star for reporters “navigating the fog of climate policy.” But he cautioned that, “In this realm, I will keep recommending that those seeking a real-world course forward do their navigation — however hard this makes the task — by tracking a variety of voices.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.