Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said yesterday that his bipartisan attempt to help the nuclear power industry could yield the handful of votes that Democratic leaders and the Obama administration ultimately need to pass a comprehensive global warming and energy bill in the Senate.
Lieberman took the lead this summer in outreach on nuclear power issues, meeting with about 16 Democratic and GOP senators. Lieberman did not name names in his group, but he said that his work may make the difference in the hunt for the 60 votes necessary to defeat an expected Republican filibuster.
"There are clearly some other people in our discussions who probably will never support the bill," Lieberman said. "I understand that. They support nuclear power. They'd like to see this be in some other bill, maybe an energy independence bill. But there's a group here who might be turned here toward supporting the overall bill if we get a strong enough nuclear title.
"In the end, as so often happens in the Senate, if you get two, three, four senators to go one way that they hadn't been, it could affect the outcome," he added.
The climate bill's lead sponsor, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), said earlier this week that "everything was on the table" in his search for 60 votes, including more incentives for nuclear power (E&E Daily, Oct. 7).
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona are among those working with Lieberman on the nuclear language. Both have said they would like to see more loan guarantees and tax credits for nuclear power, as well as a much broader program to help with nuclear waste disposal and recycling.
Graham echoed Lieberman in saying that a nuclear title, coupled with offshore energy exploration (see related story), could add a number of Republican and Democratic votes.
"How do you get to 60?" Graham said. "I think if you had offshore drilling in a responsible manner and you had a robust nuclear title, you would get some interest from people who are on the sidelines now just when it comes to a solo cap-and-trade emissions standard bill.
"You got some of the red state Democrats who would be more attractive to a comprehensive [bill]," Graham added. "If they could go home and say this, 'We're going to become more energy independent, and we're going to protect low-income ratepayers, and we're not going to put businesses under and lose market share to China because we're thinking about that,' I think that will sell to most people."
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he is among the group of moderate Democrats in preliminary talks on nuclear and offshore drilling. On both issues, the two-term senator said he is waiting to see some proposals before he makes any decisions.
"I have some reservations about cap and trade, but I've promised everyone I'd keep an open mind and see what they could put together," Pryor said.
Several other Republicans have made it clear that nuclear power belongs atop the list of items that should be included in an energy debate, including Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio and Tennessee's Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
Voinovich earlier this week confirmed that he is working with Lieberman and Graham on the nuclear language, though he still did not think it would be enough for supporters to win 60 votes. Alexander, author in July of a "blueprint" for constructing 100 nuclear power plants in 20 years, said yesterday that he would not emerge from the nuclear talks endorsing a climate bill.
"What I expect to see happen is a bipartisan consensus behind a strong nuclear bill," said Alexander. "Some of those sponsors or cosponsors may then take that to an economywide cap and trade. And some may not. Some may stay behind. I don't believe a strong nuclear title cures the defects of an economywide cap and trade."
Corker would only emphasize the importance of nuclear power for Republicans.
"Certainly nuclear production, advancing that, would be something that would be important to most everybody on my side of the aisle, regardless of what bill you are talking about," he said.
Democratic sponsors also must be mindful of their left as they look to make compromises on nuclear power.
"I do know there's been a major commitment to nuclear energy," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "That's not something that I particularly support. It's already in."
Rather than trumpet nuclear power, Sanders insisted that climate bill authors would make a more cost-effective move by promoting energy efficiency, solar and wind power.
"I think the evidence is pretty clear that nuclear is going to be a lot more expensive, not to mention how you get rid of the waste," Sanders said. "So I think compromises have been made already. I don't know how much more these guys want."
Kerry and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) already added a preliminary section on nuclear power as part of S. 1733, the draft bill unveiled last week. That proposal provides greater incentives for worker training and research, as well as funding for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission program to study the feasibility and reliability of expanding commercial reactors use beyond their current 40-year operating licenses, and into the 60- and 80-year operating periods.
But Boxer has acknowledged that an effort to expand nuclear incentives could win wide support, whether she backed it or not.
Meanwhile, legislative action on the Kerry-Boxer climate bill remains on hold pending a U.S. EPA analysis of the proposal, Boxer said yesterday. "We're putting our dates down, but it's all dependent on when EPA finishes," Boxer said, explaining that she has promised committee Republicans she won't begin hearings or markup until she has that data.
Boxer added that EPA's analysis should not take long because her climate bill is so close to H.R. 2454, the measure that passed the House in June. "We're thinking, maybe, it would take two weeks," Boxer said. "We don't know."
Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.