Key Senate climate bill advocates are searching for something -- anything, really -- that can serve as a legislative compromise for capping U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The lawmakers' fishing expedition has led them into a series of meetings with moderate Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as they try to maintain momentum on an issue in the face of stiff opposition from senators who want to keep the focus on the economy.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) all said over the past week that they have been making it perfectly clear to everyone that they are open to new ideas when it comes to tackling climate change.
"My approach here is we really must do something this year," said Lieberman, who has been co-sponsoring cap-and-trade bills since 2001. "The two problems of American energy dependence and global warming will only get worse. We've just got to do the most we can. I'm not being rigid or ideological about it. So anybody who wants to try to make the problem better, it's worth considering."
"We're just going to keep everything on the table and not putting out a framework at this point," said Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The trio last fall indicated they plan to compromise on more nuclear power and expanded oil and gas drilling. But they had resisted calls to pare back their plans on an economywide cap-and-trade program, saying that was the lowest-cost alternative for industry.
All three now say they are willing to listen to senators who would prefer alternative ideas, including starting first with emission limits on the electric utility industry and then perhaps phasing in other parts of the economy.
"You ask about the power sector, to do that alone wouldn't be my first choice, but if it's all we can do in the end, I'd consider it, sure," Lieberman said yesterday.
"Some people have mentioned different sectoral approaches, we're looking at that," Kerry said. "We're looking at everything. What we want to do is make sure that we get the job done. And we're not wedded to any one way of trying to do that, so we're looking at options."
Another option is the "cap and dividend" approach that forgoes trading of greenhouse gas credits. Kerry, Graham and Lieberman met yesterday with Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), co-sponsors of a bill that does just that.
They are also meeting soon with Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), both of whom have to varying degrees considered the power plant-only approach.
Graham last week said he was appealing to Republicans to sign off on a limit for greenhouse gas emissions, and he too was open to different ideas. "I think you've got to price carbon," he said. "You can have a hybrid system of emission controls and taxes."
Several longtime cap-and-trade supporters also have offered some cover to the Senate trio as they search out a compromise.
"I don't think anybody has given up on cap and trade," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "I think big, comprehensive bills are very difficult to do in this environment, regardless of what it is. I tend to be an incrementalist. I say do what you can do, when you can do it. Because everything is opportunity and timing. If you have both, you can get it done. If you have only one, it's very difficult to get it done."
"There's going to be some significant compromises that are going to have to be made if we're going to get an energy bill done," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "We knew it two weeks ago. We knew it last week. We know it this week. This is nothing new. We knew we'd not be able to get a major energy bill done without some significant change."
Cardin said a deal that notches 60 Senate votes also could withstand any divisions that emerge from the left.
"My expectation, if we succeed, there'll be strong support for what we do from the environmental community," Cardin said. "Will it be universal? I doubt it. But if we're going to be able to get a bill done, there are compromises that are going to have to be made, and some groups are not going to be happy about it.
"Our goal is to make sure we reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Cardin added. "There's different ways you can accomplish that."
The 'fence' grows
Kerry, Graham and Lieberman may have reason to be optimistic after a pair of moderate Democrats indicated they are not entirely closed off from negotiations.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said yesterday that she is open to a broad climate and energy bill as an alternative to the U.S. EPA climate regulations expected in the coming months.
"I am for a legislative solution, not a rulemaking, not an unaccountable rulemaking process," said Landrieu, one of three Senate Democrats who co-sponsored a resolution that would strip EPA of that authority. "I'm for an accountable legislative process to achieve that, and I'd be open to some modification of cap and trade that really recognizes the importance of the refining industry here. Because we're going to have a supply shortage of oil and refined products. We need to do it all. We need to be producing more and particularly more natural gas.
"I think there's a way forward, but it's most certainly going to be bipartisan, and it's most certainly going to be from the center out," Landrieu added.
Also opening the door again was Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who held out until the very end during last month's Senate deliberations on health care reform legislation. Nelson in past interviews has questioned whether Congress had any interest in tackling such a complicated subject as climate change in an election year, but he did not rule it out last week.
"I'd hope energy policy would still be alive and well," Nelson said. "I'd hope it can have strong, bipartisan support, at least that's what I'm hoping."
Nelson said he has not had detailed conversations yet with Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. But he said he is open to negotiations on setting a limit on greenhouse gas emissions. "I want to see what the legislation does," he said. "I said I can support cap. I have trouble with cap and trade, the trade part of it. So if it's cap and trade, watered down, and it's only the trade watered down, that won't satisfy me."
The recent comments from Landrieu and Nelson shift the senators from "probably no" back to the "fence sitter" category on E&E's analysis of the Senate global warming debate. They join 27 others, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Several other Senate "fence sitters" are sending signals they are a long way from a "yes" vote.
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said yesterday that he is focused on a much different set of issues. "You ask, is there a way? The answer is, I don't know. But at a time of economic anxiety, it will be more difficult," he said. "Without the global cooperation from China, India and elsewhere, it just makes it that much harder."
"I'm very skeptical of cap-and-trade as a concept," said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who said he would rather see the Senate move legislation he co-sponsored with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that emphasizes funding for clean energy technology (E&ENews PM, Nov. 16, 2009).
McCain said he is still waiting for an invitation from President Obama to talk about the climate issue. "He hasn't for the past year, but you can always hope," the 2008 Republican presidential nominee said.
As for the utility-only approach, Voinovich and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar are the most prominent Republicans to speak up with any level of interest on the issue (E&E Daily, Dec. 3, 2009). Both have said they are studying the topic while giving no guarantee they will get behind any specific legislation.
Lugar said yesterday he has not yet spoken with Kerry about the power plant-only strategy. Asked if he thought it had a better chance of passing, he said, "Not necessarily, and I've not really advocated that. I hypothetically talked about a lot of things, as I'm sure he has."
Voinovich said his staff are working on an analysis of limiting emissions just on power plants. Once finished, he said he would meet with Kerry "and just see if there's any area where something can be done."
For now, Voinovich said he is much more interested in focusing on the energy provisions included in a bill (S. 1462) adopted last spring by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "My initial feeling ... is that we ought to look at the energy bill, which is pretty bipartisan, and look at that in terms of how it could be enhanced to achieve some real reductions in emissions," he said.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the lead sponsor of that energy bill, gave himself some wiggle room when asked if he would like to see a more comprehensive bill get across the finish line. "I want to see us pass what we've been able to report out of committee," he said. "If we're able to pass more, that's great too."
In the search for votes, Lieberman said he is counting on Graham and at least two more Republicans. "We assume we have Collins and Snowe."
But try telling that to the Mainers.
Collins sidestepped questions about her meeting with the Senate trio. "Stay tuned," she said.
And Snowe, who will meet next week with Kerry, Graham and Lieberman, insisted that the economy is a much more pressing issue for her compared with cap-and-trade legislation.
"Climate change is a key issue," Snowe said. "But right now, there are so many factors affecting business' ability to create jobs or preserve jobs that we have to factor that into the equation. That's all I'm saying. I'm not dismissing, because I've been a leader on that effort in the past, but I also think we have to recognize what can we do and what's the art of the possible."
Reporters Robin Bravender and Noelle Straub contributed.