ENERGY POLICY:

New Dem coalition could tug policy, but which way?

Another gang is roaming Capitol Hill.

The latest in a series of ad-hoc Senate coalitions came together last week, uniting 16 moderate Democrats from around the country under the Moderate Dems Working Group.

The group's goal is "common-sense solutions" to major problems, including health care, education and energy, but it is unclear how or if the far-flung members will reach consensus on energy and climate policy.

Unlike other highly publicized "gangs" in recent years, this group is not bipartisan, perhaps owing to the fact that Democrats control 58 Senate seats. But the membership, drawn heavily from swing states, could be a bellwether for Senate leadership on the fate of controversial measures.

The members hold a wide spectrum of energy views. Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Tom Carper of Delaware are spearheading the group. It includes Mark Udall of Colorado and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who are favorites of environmentalists, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, among the Senate's closest allies of the oil industry. Those three are on Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as are Bayh and Lincoln.

Paul Bledsoe of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy said the group's formation is a good development in the debate over climate legislation, noting its geographic diversity. Energy issues are often more regional than partisan.

"The regions have to get together. I see that diversity as extremely positive because it will help the group move toward bipartisan compromise that can be reflected in the full Senate," said Bledsoe, the group's director of communications and strategy.

Other members of the group are Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Warner of Virginia and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

One near-term test could be whether the group plays any role in efforts to forge a compromise on a national renewable electricity standard (RES), which would require utilities to obtain escalating amounts of power from sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy.

Udall is a co-sponsor of legislation that would create a nationwide renewable electricity mandate of 25 percent by 2025, while some senators in the group have been skeptical of the more modest version introduced by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

"Fiscal responsibility" is the glue holding the members together, Udall said, citing the need for drawing down deficits in the long term even as lawmakers inject a costly stimulus in the economy now. On other topics, he said, there is an understanding that not everyone will see eye to eye.

"In our conversations we have made it clear with each other and with all the interested parties that this is a fluid group that we may agree here and we may go different ways when it comes to other policy debates," Udall said. But he added that while views may differ on an RES, he said the group broadly agrees on the need to put a price on carbon dioxide and wants to expand renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Udall did not say if he would go into the meetings with an agenda. "I am sure there are some in the group that want to bring me more toward their point of view, and I am going to work to bring them toward my point of view," he said. "The key is we are sitting down and talking to senators from all over the country."

Nelson, the Nebraska senator, said it remains unclear how much common ground members will forge on energy matters, among others. "I think we are going to look to see if there is some commonality. ... [T]here are issues where seven agree and six don't and vice versa. There could be some where there is very little agreement," he said.

Bayh's office, in announcing the group last week, noted that Bayh told the members that the gang probably would not agree on all the major issues before the Senate. "Yet the Moderate Dems are joined by a shared commitment to pursue pragmatic, fiscally sustainable policies across a range of issues, such as deficit containment, health care reform, the housing crisis, educational reform, energy policy and climate change," his office said.

The group plans to meet every other Tuesday before the Democratic Caucus lunches.

'There are gangs everywhere. Call the FBI'

The Senate has been home to series of mini-caucuses in recent years. "There are gangs everywhere," joked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a member of some himself. "We need to call the FBI."

But the record of various Senate "gangs" that have formed in recent years is mixed. In 2005, a bipartisan "Gang of 14" helped broker a compromise on President Bush's stalled judicial nominees, warding off a plan by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to change longstanding Senate rules and prevent filibusters.

Last year, another bipartisan group of 10 -- and eventually 20 -- senators came together to try and forge a compromise on energy policy that blended new offshore drilling with support for alternative energy and efficiency. But they never reached a final agreement (Greenwire, Sept. 19).

In addition to the renewables mandate, there are many other energy topics that can split Democrats, such as plans in President Obama's budget to repeal $31.5 billion in oil industry tax breaks -- provisions Landrieu has strongly criticized.

And looming over the caucus is an even larger fight over legislation Democrats hope to move that creates mandatory nationwide limits on greenhouse gases. A separate "Gang of 16" compromised of moderate Democrats from the Midwest, Rust Belt and West, are likely play a pivotal role in how a cap-and-trade bill is constructed (E&E Daily, Oct. 3, 2008).

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is a member of the climate "Gang of 16," which has some overlap with the "Moderate Dems" group. She recently said her goal includes the granting of some allowances to industry for free, rather than the 100 percent auction in President Obama's cap-and-trade plan.

Already, there is some concern in left-leaning circles over moderate Democrats balking at Obama's climate plans. In particular, the liberal advocacy group Campaign for America's Future is attacking what they call "Conservadems," accusing them of "aligning themselves with conservative Republicans" on Obama's budget plans.

Shaheen said there was room for compromise between the members on energy issues but noted discussions about specific issues thus far have been only preliminary. "It is very important for us to look at ways we can work together to address climate change, to address our future energy needs," she said Tuesday.

Glenn Hurowitz, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said he hoped that Shaheen and Udall would be influential in the new group. "Udall and Shaheen are both pretty strong environmentalists," he said. "I hope all the members of the caucus listen to the strong environmental voices in the caucus when they decide what they want to do on climate legislation."

Graham, a member of the bipartisan gangs on judicial nominees in 2005 and energy last year, said gangs come together for two basic reasons. The first, he said, is when there is a vacuum and some senators "want to solve problems to fill it."

The second, he said, is political, when members need to walk a careful line on an issue. "Quite frankly, [for] some senators, the issue is so hot they are at risk and they can't say no. They are trying to find a solution that is palatable to people back home," he said. "A lot of times these gang members are made up of at-risk members. Democrats from Republican states, Republicans from Democratic states." Graham, a Republican from a conservative state, does not fit the latter category.

Looking ahead, new or revived gangs could be in the offing. Graham said last year's gang on energy should get back together, arguing they had come forward with a "comprehensive" plan. "I think it will bear fruit in this Congress," he said. "I think we need to reassemble because gas prices are eventually going to go up."

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