Even though the Senate failed to approve energy legislation over the past two years, Republicans say Congress is more likely to pass some energy measures next session because with major GOP gains forecast in November the balance of power is certain to be more even -- regardless of which party actually has control.
"I think it's going to help, because I think what we've got now is we've such an imbalance between the parties that there's a great temptation by the majority party to say, 'We won the election, we'll write the bill and run over the minority,'" Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said last week.
"When we're better balanced, there's no way to do anything unless we have a consensus in the Senate, and so we get back to doing what we've done many times," Alexander added at a forum hosted by The Washington Post.
Despite comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress and control of the White House for the past two years, Democrats were not able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation in the Senate after the House passed its version last summer.
And while conventional wisdom says it will only get tougher to pass energy and climate bills if Republicans gain seats in Congress next year, Alexander and others predict that narrower margins will in fact bolster the chances for legislation.
"There's an irony that sometimes a near super-majority can prevent bipartisan approaches, whereas a closer party balance can naturally produce more organic bipartisan cooperation," said a former Senate Democratic staffer who spoke on background. After even scaled-back energy legislation failed to pass the chamber this year, "there has to be a profound recalibration within the Democratic caucus on how to go forward next year," the former staffer added.
The GOP is widely expected to make gains in the Senate this fall, with a small chance they could assume control of the chamber. And a growing number of political handicappers predict that Republicans will wrest control of the House from Democrats next year.
"I think if you have closer numbers and you want to accomplish things, then people are going to have to come together in the middle," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). He added that under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), "his idea on the Senate floor, at least to get to 60, is you just try to pick off one as opposed to try to find solutions for the country."
Senate Democrats -- who have criticized the GOP for refusing to work across the aisle on climate and energy -- say they are hopeful that Republicans will be more willing to negotiate if they make gains this November.
Senate Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said it is hard to predict whether that will happen. "It's a question of whether people are focused on the good of the country or the next election," he said.
Whether or not Republicans pick up seats, "I think it would be helpful to just get the election over with -- period," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
"A number of Republicans have been major proponents of climate change legislation for years, and they've moved away from it in recent years because it's like kryptonite -- political kryptonite -- for them in their own party," Carper added. He pointed to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once championed climate legislation but has since backed away from the issue.
If the parties do manage to find middle ground next year, observers say it likely won't be the kind of behemoth energy legislation that cleared the House last year and ultimately collapsed in the Senate.
President Obama vowed to throw his weight behind climate and energy legislation next year in a Rolling Stone magazine interview published yesterday, but he signaled that it may take a piecemeal approach to get anything done (E&ENews PM, Sept. 28).
"One of my top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels," Obama said. "We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation. But we're going to stay on this because it is good for our economy, it's good for our national security, and, ultimately, it's good for our environment."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has also advocated focusing on smaller energy bills with bipartisan consensus, like measures promoting electric vehicles and a renewable electricity standard. "We don't need a thousand-page, complex bill with special deals in it in order to make progress on energy," she said at the The Washington Post forum last week. "We don't do 'comprehensive' well" (Greenwire, Sept. 23).
However, Collins added, the prospects for passing any energy proposals won't have nearly as much to do with elections as they have to do with oil prices. "If we have another spike on oil prices like we did in 2008," she said when asked whether Congress would pass substantive energy legislation, "then the answer to that question will almost certainly be yes."