ENERGY POLICY:

More compromise -- or more confrontation -- just around the corner

With political control of the House and Senate now decided, the next big question becomes: gridlock or compromise?

President Obama lost his Democratic-led House and now will need to work with Republicans to accomplish legislative goals. Republicans eager to pursue their priorities must partner with Democrats to get bills through the Democratic-led Senate, as well as to secure Obama's signature.

Measures that become law likely will be pared-down policy changes, experts said. For energy and environmental issues, like many others, the era of sweeping bills is over for now.

"It's hard to imagine that you'd ever get a cap-and-trade bill through," said Bruce Cain, a Washington, D.C.-based political science professor at University of California, Berkeley. "It's hard to imagine you'd ever get a comprehensive immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship.

"I just don't think big, massive bills like that have a shot."

The White House quickly moved to frame the new arena as an opportunity. Obama last night called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); the presumed next speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio); House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Obama told Boehner he was "looking forward to working with him and the Republicans to find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people," the White House said.

Meanwhile, Boehner said the election will bring big changes. "Across the country we're witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government, and a repudiation of politicians who refused to listen to the American people," Boehner said after his party won control of the House.

"Our majority will prepare to do things differently," Boehner added. "It starts with cutting spending instead of increasing it, reducing the size of government instead of increasing it."

Some analysts see little legislative accomplishment for the next two years.

"In Congress, with a few potential exceptions, we have gridlock," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. "You're not going to get much legislation through both houses of Congress."

Obama must decide how he wants to move forward, several analysts said. Some presidents who found themselves facing similar partisan deficits succeeded in passing significant legislation anyway.

President George H.W. Bush had a Democratic-controlled Congress and saw passage of deficit reduction, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. President Reagan passed tax cuts and tax reforms with Democrats running the House.

But the tenor of Congress has changed since then, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs.

"The problem is the parties are much more polarized," Zelizer said. "There's less willingness to do anything to give the other side victory."

President Clinton, after Republicans took control of the House in 1994, developed his strategy of "triangulation," finding issues where political left and right could be united -- or bypassed altogether.

There are issues that Republicans cannot afford to vote "no" on, Cain said, like bills aimed at creating jobs or helping small businesses. Democrats are likely to "dare" the GOP to vote against those, he said.

"We're most likely going to see some version of 1994 all over again," Cain said. "The question is, what does Obama do?" If the president fights Republicans for two years, Cain said, he is not likely to get much accomplished.

"If Obama is adept and takes a page out of the Clinton playbook," Cain said, "it's possible that there will be some achievements out of the next two years in office."

New coalitions?

While movement on a major climate bill seems unlikely, there could still be energy legislation passed, analysts and strategists said.

Before the election, Obama in several interviews said that Congress needs to tackle energy and climate issues in "chunks" and "bite-sized pieces" next year because a sweeping bill is unlikely to move. Obama might again try to pair up boosting alternative energies with expansion of fossil fuel development, Cain said (Greenwire, Oct. 28).

New coalitions could emerge.

There are a number of Republicans who are "eager to find solutions to our dependence on foreign oil as well as Republicans from more moderate-leaning districts who are interested in environmental protections," said John McGovern, strategist at Resolute Consulting in Chicago and previously senior adviser to former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

"Certainly there will be the opportunity to build coalitions across the aisle," McGovern said.

House members from districts along the Great Lakes, for example, are concerned about water issues and might want to team with lawmakers from the West and Plains states interested in land protections, McGovern said. And members from Colorado, Pennsylvania and Southern states have river issues, he said.

"Almost in a weird way, divided government allows people to build" those coalitions, McGovern said. "It may have a better chance of passing because you're going to have Republicans and Democrats on it."

Nuclear energy also could get a boost, McGovern said.

But Obama will be hurt significantly by the lack of a Democratic-controlled House to kick-start action on major bills, Zelizer said.

"The House has been for Democrats really the engine of legislation for the first two years and really the engine of liberalism," Zelizer said.

Pelosi pushed for movement on a comprehensive climate bill when Obama wanted to wait, Zelizer said. That was important despite the bill's death in the Senate.

"If the House passes something, even if the Senate doesn't pass it, it has some political effect," Zelizer said. "That record is there for the Democratic Party. "

Democrats have been able to argue that Republicans in the Senate were blocking bills, Zelizer said. Without the circumstances to make that contention, he said, "it's hard to get help from supporters and get much fundraising."

Action also could shift more heavily to the executive branch, analysts said.

Obama could seek partnerships with industry that bring about changes, Ornstein said, offering to expedite permits or some other help if industry agrees to changes. Clinton worked with the auto industry, Ornstein said, to develop next-generation vehicles with better fuel efficiency.

Obama also might use Interior, the Department of Energy and U.S. EPA even more than he has now in order to pursue his agenda.

"He might govern more like George Bush than he thought he would," Zelizer said, referring to George W. Bush. "That's how a lot of conservatives cut environmental programs. It might be how Obama moves forward without dealing with the legislative process."

Republicans would be likely to pursue court action to stop those executive branch moves, Ornstein said.

Republican priorities

Meanwhile, House Republicans are likely to attempt to dismantle the health care and financial services bills passed over the past two years and to pursue their own agenda.

"A Republican majority will not be shy about reflecting the mood of the country and its constituents," McGovern said. "At the same time, the leadership will understand that they face an obstacle in the White House."

Republicans also are expected to launch investigations, including those on the energy front.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, already has said that if he becomes oversight chairman, he plans to probe last year's controversy over e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England.

In that case, dubbed "Climategate," hackers revealed e-mails that sparked allegations that scientists had manipulated climate data to silence critics. Investigative panels in both the United States and Britain have cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing (Greenwire, Oct. 26).

Issa also has been a major critic of the Minerals Management Service, now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

"There will be a lot of fights, a lot of investigations," Cain said.

Those and other investigations could mean Obama administration members repeatedly would be called to testify at hearings, Ornstein said.

That happened to Clinton after the 1994 midterm election and very little was accomplished legislatively, Ornstein said, adding that "1995 was almost a lost year." The following year, he said, was "extremely productive."

"You're going to see some things get through the House and not through the Senate," Ornstein said. "You're going to see a lot of it get done through hearings."

But Republicans could feel new pressure to compromise, analysts said.

"The just-say-no strategy works well when you're out of power," Cain said. "It doesn't work when you're in power, when you're in control."

Obama is likely to "provide an olive branch," said Jaime Harrison, strategist at Podesta Group and former director of floor operations and counsel to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

"It's in the president's best interest that he do that," Harrison said.

One of the first big conflicts could come over raising the debt limit, Harrison said. Congress will need to do that fairly quickly next year. The new costs, however, will have to be covered with new revenue or by or severely cutting programs.

And Democrats are unlikely to vote to raise the debt limit and give Republicans the ability to vote no, Harrison said.

That could lead to a government shutdown, like what happened in 1995 in the Clinton administration after a political stalemate over the budget.

If Republicans resist compromise, Obama might be helped in his re-election run -- as Clinton was, analysts said.

"Obama could go on TV and say, 'The Republican Congress is blocking me,'" Zelizer said. If Republicans and Democrats unite on measures, he said "it cuts away that argument."

In the meantime, California could become the leader on capping carbon, Cain said, now that voters have voted against delaying that state's aggressive climate measure.

If the Golden State's economy is not hurt by the new emissions rules and the national economy improves, he said, that could influence Congress to make changes. But that is not likely to come for some time, he said.

Federal rules on clean air followed California by about two decades.