As the Senate slogs through the final days of this session, Democrats feel great frustration over the failure to pass major energy legislation -- leaving them open to consider backing a once-balked-at Republican proposal for a clean energy standard early next year.
"Boy, it will be a major disappointment if this Congress shuts down at the end of this year without having done anything on energy, anything of consequence," retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said earlier this month.
Democratic senators blazed into the 111th Congress two years ago with bold plans to pass sweeping climate and energy bills, but those plans eventually fizzled.
And efforts to bring up smaller measures, like the stand-alone renewable energy standard (RES) bill introduced by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), haven't had better luck. Lawmakers have not even been able to move legislation responding to the massive oil spill that sullied the Gulf of Mexico this summer.
"Of course Chairman Bingaman is disappointed. Over the past two years, Senate Energy Committee members have invested a lot of effort into understanding both the energy challenges and the opportunities that our nation faces," said Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker in an e-mail.
Last month, hopes were high that lawmakers would move on a handful of smaller energy measures during the short lame duck. But the session has turned into four weeks of gridlock, and energy measures once slated for consideration have not found enough support to move forward.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had scheduled a procedural vote on a natural gas and electric vehicle incentives bill for the first week of the lame duck, but he pulled that bill from consideration when it became clear it lacked enough support to move forward.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the measure, sounded resigned yesterday when he told reporters that "we really need to pass it."
As of today, the only hope for energy action this year lies in the $858 billion tax deal that senators yesterday agreed to take up. The measure includes an extension of the renewable energy grant program and ethanol tax credits.
Support growing for Graham's CES
But champions of energy legislation are not licking their wounds. Instead, they are looking toward next year. And a one-time, long-shot Republican idea is gaining steam among both Democrats and Republicans.
The proposal for a clean energy standard, which has been batted around for years and introduced most recently by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has created a buzz on and off Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
Graham's measure has been offered as an alternative to Bingaman and Brownback's RES, which would require utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2021. Graham and the CES measure's other supporters want to see nuclear energy and "clean coal" included in the standard. Democratic Sen. Tom Carper (Del.) has also supported the idea of a broader mandate.
The measure got a significant boost last week when Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he was open to discussing the idea and urged Congress to seriously "think about" it.
Yesterday, Alaska Democrat Mark Begich said he, too, believes the measure has merit.
"I'm looking at Lindsey Graham's idea that I want to see. Yes, I actually called him; told him I'm interested in that," Begich said yesterday. "I'm looking at it now." He said he is optimistic the Senate will take action on energy within the first six months of 2012.
But the proposal's biggest boost could come from Bingaman. The energy panel's chairman yesterday said a clean energy mandate that included incentives for renewables was "certainly worth looking at," The Hill reported.
Bingaman has long been a staunch opponent of a clean energy standard, saying he does not support nuclear, gas or clean coal generation being included in such a standard.
"The versions I have seen in the past have appeared to me to essentially wipe out any real incentive for things like solar and wind, other of the developing or maturing technologies," Bingaman told The Hill. But he added: "I am open to looking at other options, other ways to do it."
Graham has previously said he would be willing to work with Bingaman on compromise language and last week said he has been in talks with more senators about their potential support of his proposal. Bingaman, on the other hand, has promised to reintroduce his RES measure in the new Congress.
Reporter Katherine Ling contributed.