Closed-door talks extended to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday as President Obama, key senators and industry officials searched for an elusive agreement on comprehensive energy and climate change legislation.
At the White House, Obama implored 14 Democrats and Republicans to reach consensus before the end of this year on a bill that puts a first-ever price on carbon emissions, rather than settle for the energy-only approach favored by some moderates.
Back on Capitol Hill, the three senators at the center of the legislative effort presented their broad ideas to some of the country's largest trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute and the American Farm Bureau.
The rush of activity underscored the last-ditch push to produce a draft Senate bill before the spring recess that begins March 26.
"We're on a very short fuse," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a lead author of the bill with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), while talking with reporters on the White House driveway. "We're moving very rapidly. ... We're now down to dealing with specific language and negotiating with various interested parties."
Those talks occupied 70 minutes of Obama's time as eight Democrats and six Republicans went around the Cabinet Room describing their demands. Obama opened the meeting by insisting the Senate stick to his plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions, and in return pledged to make concessions on oil and gas drilling and nuclear power.
Afterward, several of the people in the room said the open-mic opportunity afforded everyone a chance to see how far apart they were -- and also how close.
"When you sit around the table in the kind of civil discussion we had, you realize we had a lot in common," Lieberman said. "I think if this group continues to work together, we can get something done on this, this year."
"It was very useful for the president to hear the views of a wide range of members representing very diverse states, from energy producers like West Virginia and Alaska to energy importers like Maine," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who used her time to outline a bill co-authored with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that would cap greenhouse gas emissions with the bulk of the emission allocations auctioned off and some three-quarters of the revenues returned to the public.
"I think the president was using this meeting to take the temperature of a group of senators who have been interested in clean energy issues and to see where we stood," Collins added.
"The president expressed his strong support for a bipartisan effort to establish clean energy incentives that will create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil -- and he made clear that the best way to drive a transition to a clean energy economy is to give business the predictability and certainty it needs to make investments," a White House aide said.
During the meeting, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) did not let it go unnoticed that he was the only coal-state senator in the room.
"I made very clear to the president and my colleagues that what we need is an energy policy that protects West Virginians, creates jobs and stimulates the economy, and that means investing in clean coal technology," Rockefeller, the Commerce Committee chairman, said.
And manufacturing state senators made their pitch for a bill that compensates energy-intensive industries like glass, aluminum and steel.
"My message to President Obama was simple: Done right, clean energy legislation can be a jobs bill," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is leading the talks for states with trade-sensitive industries alongside Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin.
While Levin did not go to the White House, he said earlier in the day that he is urging a five-year delay for manufacturers after any greenhouse gas cap goes into place for electric utilities. Levin said he would also seek another postponement on emission limits for manufacturers if a border adjustment plan had not been fully implemented that would add tariffs for carbon-intensive goods imported from developing countries without adequate climate policies of their own.
Levin said he has also asked for more allowances for manufacturers that reflect their international competition needs. And he said he would like to see a shift in the emission allocation formula -- compared to the House-passed climate bill (H.R. 2454) -- for states with electric utilities that rely primarily on coal and natural gas. Absent the change, Levin warned, "there'd be a regional shift of wealth, which would not be fair."
'Big and comprehensive and bloated isn't working'
Obama also heard from several Republicans who would prefer a less aggressive approach that avoids a cap on greenhouse gases.
Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) pitched a plan to build 50 new nuclear power plants, speed up licensing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and push the commercial trucking industry toward natural gas.
"Big and comprehensive and bloated isn't working," LeMieux said before the White House meeting. "What could work is things that we can all agree upon. We've taken some votes in here that pass 100-0. We have some votes that pass 95-5. Let's pick out some of the things we can agree upon. Let's get them done now and not wait a year or two or three to get them done."
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) also went to Obama with an alternative.
Yesterday, Lugar said he had begun drafting a bill that included a national clean energy standard that promotes nuclear power and "clean coal" technologies, and a stronger plan for automobile fuel efficiency standards.
"We're trying to put together a number of ideas that would conserve energy," Lugar said. "And most importantly, save money either for businesses or building renovations or homeowners or car owners."
But Lugar said he likely would not support the approach from Kerry, Graham and Lieberman that would put a price on carbon emissions.
"I've participated in a lot of discussions, so you never say never, but this is not the course than I'm on," Lugar said. "It appears to me that course does not have popular support. Furthermore, it could be potentially difficult with regard to recovery from the recession. So we're attempting to do some things that are likely to help create jobs and profitability of businesses and savings for homeowners."
Obama and several others at yesterday's meeting pushed back against calls for just moving on an energy bill.
Graham told reporters afterward that he remains opposed to a "half-assed energy bill" that pushes for more oil, gas and nuclear power without also putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.
"I've come to conclude the energy-only approach will lead to mediocrity," Graham said. "There's not 60 votes doing energy only for offshore drilling. There's not 60 votes for nuclear power the way I'd like doing energy only. Only when you marry up climate change, cleaning up the air, with energy independence, do you get the transformational aspects of energy independence I'm hoping for."
The White House deserved credit, Graham added, for signaling compromise on nuclear power and offshore drilling issues. And he pleaded with more senators to negotiate on their bill.
"If you're a Republican, and you believe we should 'Drill, Baby, Drill,' now's your chance," Graham said. "If you're a Republican, independent or Democrat, who believes in nuclear power, the store is open, now is your chance. And I'd hope every American would pursue cleaner air. Don't let this moment pass. Don't water down a chance to transform our economy."
Obama administration officials at the White House meeting included Energy Secretary Steven Chu; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner; and Larry Summers, the assistant to the president for economic policy and the director of the National Economic Council. Other senators attending included Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), and Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
White House officials and several senators said they expect another round of talks with Obama on the climate and energy bill. Another meeting of senators and the trade groups is scheduled for early next week in the Capitol, Kerry said.