Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) added another layer of uncertainty to the prospects for passing a comprehensive climate bill this year by opening the door to punting the legislation into 2010, only to have a top aide walk back from his boss' comment a short while later.
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman, insisted last night that "no decisions have been made" on floor timing for a comprehensive climate and energy bill. "We still intend to deal with health care, [Wall Street regulatory] reform and cap and trade this year," Manley added in an e-mail.
But a few hours earlier, Reid had suggested that the global warming legislation could be tossed to the sidelines because of a packed legislative agenda that includes equally bruising battles over health care and Wall Street reform.
"So, you know, we are going to have a busy, busy time the rest of this year," Reid said. "And, of course, nothing terminates at the end of this year. We still have next year to complete things if we have to."
The majority leader's suggestion of a further delay on the climate bill quickly rippled through Washington as the Obama administration prepares to host a small subset of international climate negotiations later this week at the State Department. Several Senate aides warned that any slowdown in the Capitol Hill climate debate could hinder progress as diplomats try to hammer out the details on a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Reid was not the only Democratic leader on Capitol Hill yesterday to suggest the climate bill may need to take a back seat amid President Obama's all-out push on health care and financial reform.
"I think its increasingly difficult to have a climate change bill done before the end of the year," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the timing for the climate bill this year depends in large part on how Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) handle the drafting of their proposal over the coming weeks.
"I don't know what Senator Reid is going to decide," Bingaman said. "I don't think he'll make a judgment until he sees what comes forward in the way of cap-and-trade legislation."
Boxer and Kerry had originally planned to release a draft cap-and-trade bill last week, but they punted on that schedule to continue negotiations with other senators over unfinished pieces to their proposal.
Yesterday, Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he and Boxer still plan to get the draft legislation out by Sept. 30. "We have a mental deadline," Kerry said. "We are aiming for this month."
The climate bill authors are "making great progress" as they meet with other senators to map out key features of the bill, Kerry added. "We are going to be working very, very hard, almost every night over the next two weeks," he said.
Kerry said he plans to hold a markup in the Foreign Relations Committee in October. Boxer said she too remains on schedule for passing the legislation out of her Environment and Public Works Committee next month. "The feeling is that it's moving in our direction," she said.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) still plans to mark up allocation language at the center of the global warming bill. But Baucus said yesterday that he is waiting for a signal from Reid before he makes any move on climate change.
"It's health care now," Baucus said. "Climate change really depends on the leader's schedule."
Meanwhile, Bingaman opened the first in a series of hearings on some of the thorny details surrounding a cap-and-trade bill, sifting through some of the same issues at the center of the Boxer-Kerry bill. Lawmakers heard from energy experts on the need to control price volatility within a carbon market potentially worth more than a trillion dollars.
Several Democrats on the committee, including Dorgan and Washington's Maria Cantwell, said they were not sure the House-passed climate bill was the best vehicle for Congress to try and pass into law.
Before the hearing, Dorgan said he had spoken to Obama and Reid about trying to move an energy bill on its own this year while holding back on the cap-and-trade provisions. "I've not convinced anybody, but I'm not finished," he said.
Dorgan, who is up for re-election next year, warned that efforts to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill could spell trouble for the entire package. "I do think there's a potential of losing both if they're combined and bringing a combined bill to the floor," he said.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) made a similar pitch yesterday in her first major public speech since taking the helm of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"Adding climate change legislation to the reforms already included in the Senate Energy Committee's proposal is going to be a challenge in my view," Lincoln told the National Cattlemen's Beef Association conference. "I am opposed to the House passed cap-and-trade legislation, which in my view, picks winners and losers and places a disproportionate share of the economic burden on families and businesses in Arkansas. It is a deeply flawed bill, and I will not support similar legislation in the Senate."
Lincoln, up for re-election in 2010, said she is also concerned the Senate climate bill could raise energy costs or feed costs for farmers and livestock producers. Lincoln said she plans to meet with Boxer in the next few weeks to try to make sure farmers' interests are included in the legislation.
Reid yesterday downplayed the idea of slicing off the energy language on its own.
"That was an initial discussion that we had many, many months ago," Reid said. "We've focused on what the House has done, and that is do it all in one package. But we have -- that's a bridge that's still a long ways away."
Reid earlier this year supported moving energy legislation separately from climate change, but he shifted course after intense lobbying on the one-bill approach from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) (E&ENews PM, March 5).
Several Senate Republicans also took aim yesterday at Democrats as they push for the comprehensive climate package.
Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a past co-sponsor of a Bingaman-led cap-and-trade bill, questioned the economic consequences that would come if the House legislation became law.
"Instead of lightening the load, it asks Americans to shoulder more, oblivious to how difficult that will be," Murkowski said, adding that it was "essential" to include some type of protection in a Senate bill to prevent against wild price spikes.
Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) said he doubts a climate bill can lead to any positive results. "What do we get in terms of actual economic benefit from controlling greenhouse gas emissions?" he asked.
For his part, Bingaman does not plan his own bill this year on climate change -- a shift in strategies from past attempts that have won over support from key moderate Republicans -- and said he does not want to get in Boxer and Kerry's way.
"I'm just letting them and their committees develop their legislation," Bingaman said. "I'm not trying to influence what they do."
Carbon capture language
Boxer, Kerry and nine other senators continued their efforts yesterday to strategize on the climate bill, part of regular weekly meetings on the legislation.
Kerry showed off television commercials advocating for passage of the climate bill. And the Democrats also talked through a draft legislative proposal on carbon capture and storage technologies released last week from coal-state Democrats and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) (E&ENews PM, Sept. 11).
It is unclear if the coal-state Democrats' plan will make it into the legislation, though Kerry hinted that anything that expands support would be considered useful.
"I don't want to do a selective what's in and what's out," he said. "But we take it very seriously. It's a thoughtful proposal. It's got some good thoughts and we want to grow the base."
Carper said he would meet by tomorrow with Senate staff interested in the clean coal language. "The idea is to have a really healthy dialogue spurred by the work that went into the letter," he said.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) stands out among the Senate Democrats who signed off on the Carper-led group's proposal. The nine-term senator has often stated his opposition to strict new environmental regulations, but Carper said he is making some headway.
"I think he's decided that he doesn't want to be on the outside looking in," Carper said. "He wants to really have a seat at the table."
Asked if Byrd could be a "yes" vote on the legislation, Carper replied, "I wouldn't want to bet my paycheck. But I think he can be a constructive voice. Given who he is, we need to hear that voice."
Other Senate Democrats attending the Boxer-Kerry session yesterday includes Roland Burris of Illinois, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Udall of Colorado, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
"The good thing is we're all talking," Cardin said. "Trying to work it out."
Reporters Noelle Straub, Ben Geman and Allison Winter contributed.