The Senate climate bill has been at death’s door several times over the past year. But with the days before the August recess quickly slipping away, the case may truly be terminal now.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has wanted to introduce a sweeping energy and climate bill by next week, and Reid even told POLITICO on Monday night that the package was almost ready to go.
But by Tuesday afternoon, Reid was noncommittal about when a bill would come or what it would contain.
“We’re going to make a decision in the near future,” Reid said, describing plans for a Democratic caucus on the issue Thursday. “We’re really not at a point where I can determine what I think is the best for the caucus and the country at this stage.”
Key advocates for legislation to cap greenhouse gases emitted by power plants are pleading for more time as they try to cut a deal with the industry, but it’s time that Reid doesn’t have as he races to finish other Senate business — including the confirmation vote on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan — while girding for a bruising midterm election.
Meanwhile, swing-vote Democrats and Republicans are still clinging to the fence, if not saying no outright. And President Barack Obama has yet to deploy the kind of whip operation his allies think is necessary if the bill has any chance of notching 60 votes.
“The clock is our biggest enemy,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters Tuesday, shortly after a meeting with several major electric utility industry CEOs who asked for a delay in the floor debate. “Some people know that. We have to figure out what is doable in this short span of time. That’s the test, and we’re going to take a look at that.”
Reid said Tuesday that he’s still contemplating a bill that involves “something on utilities.” And he also continued to look to Republicans, support from some of whom he’ll need to get 60 votes.
“We’re still trying to find a Republican or two or three on energy,” he said. “We haven’t given up on that.”
Perhaps Reid’s biggest stumbling block is the part of his bill dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. After first aiming for a measure covering multiple sectors of the economy (power plants, manufacturers and transportation), Reid agreed to scale back the bill to focus just on electric utilities.
But that strategy isn’t going over well with the power companies.
Kerry and his main partner on the legislation, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), met Tuesday with members of the board of directors of the Edison Electric Institute, who are in Washington for a lobbying campaign on climate legislation.
According to Lieberman, the CEOs — Ted Craver of Edison International; Anthony Earley Jr. of DTE Energy; Tom Farrell of Dominion Resources; Bill Johnson of Progress Energy; Michael G. Morris of American Electric Power; David Ratcliffe of Southern Company; and John Ramil of TECO Energy first asked the senators to resurrect their original bill, introduced in May, that would limit emissions not just from power plants but from manufacturers and transportation fuels, as well.
Short of that, they pressed for similar language friendly to their cause, starting first with a formula they favor for distributing valuable emissions allowances. But going in that direction gets tricky if the Senate bill focuses just on power plants, because there’s a smaller pot of credits to pull from.
“Whether we can replicate that in terms of what we’re doing is what we have to go back and try and find out,” Kerry said.
Electric utilities also want relief from several Clean Air Act rules dealing with smog, soot and mercury, but that demand draws complaints from many environmental groups that see it as an unworthy trade.
“That’s a tough one,” Lieberman said. The utilities “frame it in a different way. They just want a breather. And not an eternal pre-emption. These are all topics of negotiation. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing here.”
Brian Wolff, EEI’s senior vice president of communications, said the power company executives agreed to “continue to work with [Kerry and Lieberman] and in good faith would not comment until we see legislative language.”
According to Lieberman, the power company officials sounded skeptical that the negotiations could be finished in time for a floor debate next week.
“They want to work with us to see if they can negotiate an agreement on a utility-only bill, but as far as they’re concerned, they can’t do it in 10 days, so they’re pleading for more time,” Lieberman said. “And I think that’s something we ought to consider.”
Punting on the climate bill would leave Reid with a big decision. He could opt to move forward next week with more-popular provisions dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, energy tax incentives and a national renewable electricity standard that passed last year, with Republican support, out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Or Reid could wait until Kerry and Lieberman have resolved their talks with the power companies.
Asked Tuesday whether he expected an energy and climate bill to hit the floor next week, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) shrugged and said, “Depends on schedules; depends on what gets passed. Don’t know.”
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said he very likely wouldn’t support a bill that focused just on the electric utility industry. “It tends to be a self-defeating process, because if you go for something less than a comprehensive approach, you’re asking for some parts of the country, including my own state, to possibly bear a disproportionate burden without actually solving the problem,” he said. “So that’s a pretty tough sell to me.”
Republicans also were blunt.
“He’s waiting until we have, like, two or three days to tackle a subject that usually takes seven or eight weeks,” GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said of Reid. “That makes it very difficult.”
“Can I be very candid with you?” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) asked. “This whole thing is very cynical. Anybody who’s been in the Senate for any period of time knows there’s no way — no way — an energy bill can get done between now and the election or even now and the end of the year.”
Alexander and Voinovich said Reid would have better luck if he abandoned the climate change provisions and focused just on energy and the oil spill. Even some Democrats are anxious.
“If they’re serious about bringing it up next week, they’ve got to show it soon,” said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). “You can’t release it late Friday and expect people to read it and be prepared to debate it on Monday.”
Given the complaints, Kerry and Lieberman seemed prepared for several additional months of debate — possibly even into a lame-duck session after the election.
“This issue is not going away ever until it’s addressed,” Kerry said. “It’s going to have to be addressed correctly at some point in time. So if we’re not about to do that now because we don’t have the right formula or can’t, it’s absolutely going to continue as an issue.”
“Everybody here assumes, including you all, that we’re going to be here in November and December,” Lieberman said. “I know there’s a certain awkwardness in a lame-duck session. But these are big and important issues regarding energy independence, pollution reduction, job creation that requires some time. I hope we’re not going to force ourselves to be constrained by an artificial schedule.”
A former Senate Democratic aide said climate advocates need to start gearing up for 2011, which will require a big push from Obama, Democratic control of the House and support from Senate Republicans to have any chance of success. “The window is definitely almost shut, and if it closes without action in the next few weeks, a lot of advocates will need to take stock about when this could be realistically attempted again,” the former staffer said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Sen. Joe Lieberman as saying he didn’t want to be constrained by “an artificial setting” rather than “an artificial schedule.”
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