When it comes to climate change legislation, Senate Democratic leaders find themselves in a similar spot to where their House counterparts stood a few months ago: pledging passage of a comprehensive bill without a clear path on how to get there.
Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday insisted that he wanted to get a sweeping energy and global warming measure onto the Senate floor between mid-September and early October. But the Nevada Democrat and his lieutenants were less specific when it came to defining their strategy for crossing the all-important 60-vote threshold needed to defeat an expected Republican filibuster.
"Well, we have to see what the product is first, you know?" Reid said, quickly adding that a main reason for the bill is that the United States now imports 70 percent of its oil.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the party's third ranking Democrat behind Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, told E&E that Democrats would get to 60 votes on climate legislation. Asked how sponsors planned to do that, Schumer replied, "Don't know. But I believe we'll get there."
It is no surprise that the Senate will struggle if it wants to pass a climate bill. Since 2001, sponsors of legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions have forced three floor debates but have never received more than 48 "aye" votes on any bill.
As with the House, the climate debate breaks down over regional lines just as much as it does along partisan ones, as evidenced by Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. "I don't think the strategy is set on how you get to 60 yet until we figure out how you get Midwestern senators that are interested in manufacturing to support climate change," Brown said.
"I have close to a 16-year, 100 percent environmental record," Brown added. "And I want to support this bill, but it's got to protect manufacturing. Because if we don't, it's worse for global warming."
Advocates insist that this year's efforts will be different thanks to President Obama's support for the legislation, compared with former President George W. Bush's often-stated opposition to mandatory greenhouse gas limits.
"[What] we have different this year is a president who understands these issues and wants to make this happen," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said yesterday during a Capitol Hill press conference. In 2008, Salazar served in the Senate and stood out as one of about 15 moderate Democrats with significant concerns about climate legislation.
Sponsors also have last month's House-passed bill up on the scoreboard, a 219-212 floor vote that came after several intense months of leadership-led lobbying to win over enough of the Democrats' wavering liberals, moderates and conservatives. Yet even there, it is unclear how much the House vote will help.
"They've certainly improved it substantially from where it was last year by what they did in the House, but it still has a ways to go before I can vote for it," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said yesterday, citing his continued concerns about how climate legislation will deal with several North Dakota-specific issues, including agriculture, oil and coal production.
"I just generally don't like many things about the House bill," added Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "But I'm open to discuss how we can move forward to make our energy grid greener. How we can move to the next generation of energy supply, and most importantly how to get American energy secure. That goal cannot be done without increasing traditional oil and gas production."
Landrieu did not rule out voting in favor of the Senate climate bill. But she said that her price for support would entail at least setting aside specific allocations for the oil and gas industry, as well as greater domestic energy production.
"That would move in the right direction, and we're working on that now," she said.
Going forward, it is unclear exactly how the Senate will advance a giant energy and climate bill.
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plans to release the core pieces of a climate package within the next two weeks, with a markup penciled in for either the last week of this month or early August.
At a hearing yesterday with four top Obama officials testifying, Boxer predicted success. "I believe that this committee, when the votes are eventually taken on our bill, will reflect our president's attitude, which is 'Yes, we can, and yes, we will,'" Boxer said.
Boxer's committee tilts heavily toward the Democrats thanks to a 12-7 majority that includes Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who bolted earlier this year from the Republican Party. Specter in 2008 stood out as a moderate GOP lawmaker on climate issues, co-sponsoring legislation with Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that capped greenhouse gases but with less aggressive targets and timetables compared with other measures.
Specter yesterday said he comes into the current climate debate unwedded to a specific proposal. "It's a new year," he said. "And I'm prepared to look at everything on the table."
He also weighed in on Boxer's plan to complete the committee debate before the August recess. "I think it's ambitious, but doable," Specter said.
Several other Senate committees also are expected to have a say in this year's package. Bingaman won some Republican support last month when he passed legislation that includes a nationwide renewable electricity standard and a raft of other energy incentives, including a provision that could bring oil and gas rigs closer to Florida's Gulf Coast.
Reid plans to pull from Bingaman's bill, as well work from the Finance, Foreign Relations, Agriculture and Commerce committees. But it is unclear which committees, if any, will actually vote on their own legislation.
"I don't know about marking up," Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said yesterday. "We've having hearings certainly, and probably a markup too."
Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said he did not expect Democrats to hold a formal markup on a climate bill, though Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) has not said for sure what his plan is.
Reid has set a Sept. 18 deadline for the six committees to produce their pieces of the bill before the floor debate starts.
Moderate Republicans still on fence
A large bloc of Senate Republicans have no intention of voting with Obama and the Democrats on the climate bill.
At yesterday's EPW Committee hearing, for example, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, stacked all of the different iterations of the House climate bill on the desk in front of the witnesses -- what he said was 6,706 pages in all. The four-term Republican then questioned Boxer's plan to work from a House bill that few have had a chance to read.
"What needles are the majority trying to hide in this haystack?" Bond said. "What backroom deals were made to buy support? What provisions were added in the middle of the night? How will the bureaucratic nightmare this bill creates work?"
There are also a handful of moderate GOP lawmakers who are seen as fence sitters on climate legislation given their past voting record on the issue.
Lugar, a longtime sponsor of nonbinding Senate resolutions urging action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, said yesterday that the House bill does not meet his satisfaction. "I'd not be able to support that legislation," he said. "Trying to describe the changes would need a catalogue."
But Lugar also said he would be following the Senate committee debate closely. "I hope they'll be more successful," he added. "But it appears to me initially that the House bill will not make very much difference in terms of the carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. It's an extraordinarily expensive bill at a time when our budget situation, the deficits we're running, is already threatening potential inflation."
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who will retire in 2010, sided last summer with climate advocates on a procedural floor vote. Yet he too said the House-passed bill falls short. "I wouldn't support that," Martinez said. "Not there yet."
And Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he is still holding firm in his position supporting caps on greenhouse gas emissions only from the electric utility industry. "The idea of an economywide bill is unnecessary," he said.
As for alternatives, Alexander said Democrats should consider a GOP-led plan that calls for the construction of 100 new nuclear plants, as well as a low carbon fuel standard. "Why in the world they come up with a 1,400-page high-cost solution, I don't know," he said. "We need cheap energy."
Democrats also are expected to face pressure from the left to strengthen the House-passed bill's emission targets, something that David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council testified about yesterday before Boxer's committee.
The idea has support among some Senate moderates.
"I can support higher targets," Ohio's Brown said. "I just want to make sure that the way we get there can blunt the price spikes and can protect manufacturing so it doesn't go to low environmental standard countries. I'm OK with stronger standards and a timetable that gets us there."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) splashed cold water on that concept. "We could all say I'd like it to be stronger," she said. "However, we recognize what the real world is like here and there has to be 60 votes to pass a bill."
Reporters Alex Kaplun, Allison Winter, Noelle Straub and Eric Bontrager contributed.