July 13, 2010 03:03 PM EDT
Senate Democratic leaders are set to roll the dice this month on a comprehensive energy and climate bill, including a cap on greenhouse gases from power plants, even though they don’t yet have the 60 votes needed to move the controversial plan.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed Tuesday that he would gamble on the high-stakes legislation — much as he undertook health care and Wall Street reform — that for now remains in the rough-draft stage but that will soon be the subject of intense negotiations.
“Whatever I bring to the floor, I want to get 60 votes,” Reid told POLITICO shortly after announcing his strategy for a full Senate debate as early as the week of July 26.
Reid confirmed the bill will have four parts: an oil spill response; a clean-energy and job-creation title based on work done in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; a tax package from the Senate Finance Committee; and a section that deals with greenhouse gas emissions from the electric utility industry.
“In this stage, we’ve not completed it. But we’re looking at a way that’s making sure when we talk about pollution, it’ll focus just on the utility sector,” Reid said.
Proposals for tackling emissions from power plants are emerging from several Senate offices.
A three-month-old draft from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), leaked Tuesday, seeks to cut emissions from electric utilities by 17 percent by 2020 and 43 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. And Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are floating a proposal this week and hope to win support from key GOP moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Underscoring the delicate nature of the issue, Reid insisted that the proposal he will introduce in about 10 days should not be called a cap-and-trade plan or even a cap on emissions.
“I don’t use that,” he said. “Those words are not in my vocabulary. We’re going to work on pollution.”
Reid’s task in the coming weeks will be just as intense as his other big legislative lifts. Besides vocal opposition from nearly all Senate Republicans, he faces concerns from liberal Democrats that the legislation is too weak and strong skepticism from moderate Democrats who would rather stay away from any type of mandatory carbon limits.
“Taking action and getting 58 votes — what’s it going to do?” said Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “The [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce is going to spend $75 million to try to defeat Democratic candidates.”
“If you have 60 votes, then go ahead and do it. But don’t do it for the sake of doing it,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she supports tackling climate change through a bill that starts with the electric utility industry, which produces about a third of the nation’s greenhouse gases. But she isn’t sure the votes are there and fears the issue could be lost for a long time if Reid can’t muster the 60 votes needed to thwart a filibuster.
“The question is, we’ve lost three times, I don’t want to lose again,” she said, referring to Senate floor votes on climate legislation in 2003, 2005 and 2008 that never received more than 48 votes.
Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he, too, is dubious of Reid’s plans, which appear to set aside only a limited amount of time for floor debate.
“The idea that the majority leader has set aside only a week to debate a comprehensive energy bill on the Senate floor shows that he’s not serious,” Dillon said, adding that he expected to debate a series of amendments on climate change, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository — which Reid opposes — and a plan authored by Rockefeller to block Environmental Protection Agency climate regulations for two years.
Environmental groups, though, welcomed Reid’s decision to pencil in plans for the floor debate and insisted they’re prepared to weather attacks from their opponents.
“The Senate, the House, the green community and the business community have done a lot of spadework to prepare, to think through and put a national climate policy in place,” said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “From where we sit, [Reid’s plan] is a logical leadership step.”
Knobloch acknowledged, however, that Reid begins his final push without all the support he needs to begin debate on the legislation. But he said swing votes won’t come to the bargaining table unless they’re forced to.
“Yes, it’s uncertain as of today whether we have 60 votes on this revised strategy of a utility-only cap with other clean energy provisions,” he said. “But it is important to call the vote.”
Democrats are making their push without any clear sense of how industry will respond to their plans. Kerry, Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) hosted the Chamber, American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers and a range of other influential trade organizations for several rounds of closed-door talks while the senators were working on a bill covering multiple sectors of the economy. But that was long before the negotiations reached Reid’s office and the plan had been scaled back to just the power sector.
Brian Wolff, vice president of communications at the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for most investor-owned power companies, said his group was operating without any clear picture of where Reid would take the climate debate.
“To this point, we’ve not seen anything,” Wolff said. “We’ve not seen any version of the type of rough draft he’s talking about.”
Institute officials did meet last week with staff for the White House, as well as Reid, Kerry and Lieberman. And CEOs who serve on the group’s rotating board will be on Capitol Hill next Tuesday to lobby lawmakers on climate change, as well as several other issues related to the industry, Wolff said.
Support from the power companies is critical for the climate legislation to pass, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a former top climate official in the Clinton administration. That could be possible, given the industry’s experience in a cap-and-trade system for acid rain, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.
“This is the only thing that has any chance to deal with carbon,” she said. “The utilities know how to deal with this. It’s a Republican idea. It can be done in a way that’s revenue neutral, free-market oriented and protects consumers. And it should be something for which you can get bipartisan support, assuming it’s done right.”
Reid and the Democrats can be sure they won’t have support from all Republicans. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), cited his boss’s remarks last month.
“They want to seize on the oil spill to pass a national energy tax referred to around Washington as cap and trade,” McConnell said then. “They never miss an opportunity to seize on a crisis to turn to the far-left to-do list. This has been a big item on the far-left to-do list — a national energy tax. Mark my words, that is precisely what they intend to do: Seize on the crisis in the Gulf to try to pass this.”
Anticipating the GOP attacks, Lieberman told reporters that the push toward the 60 votes would require more effort from President Barack Obama and his top advisers.
“We want them more engaged,” Lieberman said.
Obama administration officials are already in the middle of the fight. Reid, for example, met Tuesday with White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But the issue didn’t come up when 15 top Senate Democrats, including Reid, met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“It was not a specific legislative agenda meeting,” Durbin said. “It was a meeting about our end game here as the session draws to a close and what we plan on doing together.”
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the lack of talk about energy and climate during the president’s meeting with senators shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of interest by the administration.
“Energy is something, obviously, that will come up before the Senate leaves, as will a number of things, like [Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena] Kagan and — and other things,” Gibbs told reporters. “I expect the president will be active in that debate.”
Coral Davenport and Kendra Marr contributed to this report.
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