President Obama's top aides huddled yesterday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic committee leaders to map out a strategy for cobbling together 60 votes on a comprehensive energy and climate change bill once lawmakers return next month from their spring break.
The hour-long meeting in Reid's office included White House legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro and Obama's energy and climate adviser, Carol Browner. According to a Senate Democratic leadership aide, the Obama officials pledged to work with the committee leaders once Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) release their bill next month.
Reid (D-Nev.) encouraged the Senate committee leaders to give "constructive comments and suggestions within a few weeks of when they get text," the aide said. Several of the senators in the room expressed hope that additional GOP senators beyond Graham would soon start to publicly support and engage in the legislative process.
"The leader feels before he brings up a bill he wants to know he's got a shot at getting it through," Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said before the meeting in Reid's office.
Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said afterward that he appreciated the White House officials' presence in the room. "I like that," he said. "I like the fact they were in there. And I think people in essence were very frank because they were there."
"The first thing, of course, is to see what their bill says," said Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
Bingaman said he advocated for the Senate to move as quickly as possible to get energy legislation (S. 1462)) approved in his committee last summer, which includes a renewable energy standard and offshore oil drilling. Bingaman said he is open to adding the climate provisions crafted by the Kerry-led trio if they have the votes.
"I'd like to have the Senate do what it can do," Bingaman said.
Aides to Kerry, Graham and Lieberman plan to write their bill over the two-week recess that starts tomorrow, with U.S. EPA also soon to start a six-to-eight week analysis. Their bill is expected to set a first-ever price for the industrial releases of greenhouse gas emissions and expand domestic production of oil, gas and nuclear power.
As they craft their bill, Kerry, Graham and Lieberman are holding a marathon series of meetings this week with senators and interest groups in a bid to win votes and avoid costly ad campaigns against potential opponents. Freshmen Democrats got their own briefing yesterday, including Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Roland Burris of Illinois, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia.
Three separate industry meetings are also on the senators' schedule for today: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth (AEEG), which includes more than a dozen major trade associations, followed by petroleum refiners and investor-owned electric utilities. Members of AEEG have already had two briefings this month with Kerry, Graham and Lieberman.
Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters during a visit to the Capitol yesterday that he is pleased with the work to date in trying to write an industry-friendly energy and climate proposal.
"We like a lot of the content of the discussion," Donohue said. "The significant question is can they get a bill together? We haven't seen anything. There are a couple of structural outlines. But there's a long way between here and there. And when we see the whole bill, we'll take a very careful look at it."
The drilling dilemma
Graham confirmed that the Senate talks are planning to include revenue-sharing for states that agree to offshore oil and gas development. "It'd be up to the state," he said. "There's an opt-in provision. There's an opt-out provision. But it's still a work in progress."
Any move to address offshore drilling will require a delicate balancing act among a climate bill's core supporters and potential swing votes.
Revenue sharing from drilling on the outer continental shelf, for example, was one of four priorities that Sen. Begich listed yesterday in a letter to Reid. Begich said he would also like the proposal to also include expanded incentives for Alaskan natural gas, dedicated adaptation funding and more money for Arctic climate research.
"It will benefit no Alaskan to slow the advance of climate change's effects if no one can afford to rebuild their eroding village, meet a payroll or heat their home," Begich wrote.
While calling for offshore revenue sharing, Begich did not mention oil drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long a key issue for Alaska lawmakers on Capitol hill. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has listed ANWR drilling as one possible way to get her vote on a climate and energy bill.
But 10 Democratic senators wrote Kerry, Graham and Lieberman on Tuesday warning that their votes were on the line if their proposal had offshore drilling provisions with revenue sharing for opt-in states.
"As coastal senators, we truly appreciate your efforts to develop comprehensive climate legislation," the senators wrote. "After all, our states are literally the front lines when it comes to the severe impacts we'll see from sea level rise and stronger storms. But we hope that as you forge legislation, you are mindful that we cannot support legislation that will mitigate one risk only to put our coasts at greater peril from another source."
Democrats signing the letter were Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Ted Kaufman of Delaware.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who did not sign the drilling letter, said the onus will be on Obama to broker a deal among the different sides of the debate.
"The White House has to be a part of that," Carper said. "My guess is they will. There's a grand compromise here that will help us to price carbon, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign oil, and help on the air pollution side. And there's going to have to be some trade offs in order to get that."
Looking ahead to a House-Senate conference?
Jumping ahead several steps in the process, Donohue raised the question of how a Senate-passed climate bill would be reconciled with the House-passed global warming legislation authored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). That bill, H.R. 2454, sets roughly the same cap on greenhouse gas emissions but creates a much different structure for doing it.
"Can they get the votes in the Senate to go forward and do that on that type of bill?" Donohue asked. "And how'd it be with Kerry and company looking across the table at Waxman and what would we end up with?"
Lieberman on Tuesday joked about the prospect of getting his bill through the Senate and into conference negotiations with the House. "I have fantasies of reaching that point," he said. "Or as my mother would say, 'That should be our biggest problem.'"
To win 60 votes, Graham said the key is to convince senators that they have designed a new approach from the House-passed bill, including a different pricing mechanism for the transportation sector compared to the one for electric utilities.
"What we've got to do, quite frankly, is show people, Republicans and moderate Democrats, that we've come up with a fundamentally new approach to an old problem, that this is not an economywide cap-and-trade bill," Graham said. "This is a sectoral approach that prices carbon in the most business-friendly way possible but also reduces pollution."
Asked if he would consult with Reid on winning over those GOP votes, Graham said, "Harry's the least of my concerns. Right now, I'm trying to get the business community and the environmental to agree to a framework."
Click here to read the letter from Begich.
Click here to read the letter from the 10 senators.