The Senate climate and energy bill unveiled last week now resides in a no man's land without any clear consensus on who is responsible for collecting 60 votes.
"It's a good question: Who's in charge?" said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
For starters, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) makes the decisions when it comes to what proposals reach the floor and how much time they get once they get there. But he is leaving the heaviest lifting on the climate issue to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), lead authors of the bill that would place a first-ever limit on greenhouse gases while also expanding domestic oil, gas and nuclear power production.
"I think it's in our hands, and our supporters, the people who stood with us and their members all over the country," Lieberman said yesterday. "We're just beginning that now."
Reid asserted his own authority yesterday when he outlined plans to meet during the week of June 7 with Democratic committee leaders, followed a week later by a larger gathering of the entire 59-member Democratic caucus. In those meetings, Reid said he hopes to get a better picture of whether to go with the Kerry-Lieberman bill or instead move toward an energy-only approach (S. 1462) approved last June by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Still, by waiting a month, Reid is also buying time for others to get engaged. The Senate's top Democrat has repeatedly blamed Republicans for not taking a more proactive role in the negotiations, starting with Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) decision last month to walk away from talks with Kerry and Lieberman because of an unrelated political battle over immigration.
"What we're trying to do is get a Republican to help us," Reid said. "You know, without a Republican, I can't do much."
Reid is also leaving the door wide open for help from President Obama, who is coming under growing pressure from environmentalists and other climate activists to bring White House muscle to the bill just like he did in the final days of last June's House debate and during the late night closing hours of the U.N. climate talks last December in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"The silence from the White House is deafening," said a former Clinton-era White House aide. "Clearly without a White House push there does not seem to be adequate political momentum."
Several environmental groups launched an ad campaign yesterday aimed at goading Obama into the fight, with actor and activist Robert Redford as narrator. "Politicians in Washington have a choice: keep bowing to the demands of Big Oil, or stand up for the American people," Redford states in the ad, which will air on cable outlets starting today around the country. "Tell President Obama to lead America toward a clean energy future."
Obama has invested some political capital in the climate issue, sending his top aides out to make the link between the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the need for a new climate and energy policy. But he has been focused on other issues from the Wall Street reform bill to the Gulf Coast spill response, sparking many to question his true interest. Last week, Obama raised eyebrows when the White House press office issued a statement mistakenly calling the Kerry-Lieberman bill by its House counterpart's name, and also when he said he looked forward to "engaging" on the issue.
Members on both sides of the aisle have criticized Obama for not being more specific on the details of his different legislative requests, from health care to energy. And one key swing-vote Senate Republican who is willing to work with Obama and the Democrats says he wants the White House to actually put its neck on the line when it comes to the global warming bill.
"If they want to do something, it's going to have to come from him," said Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.). "His leadership is going to be required on any of these issues that are left. He's not going to just be able to leave it to Congress. He's going to have to articulate what his views are, and press for them."
Beyond Kerry and Lieberman
For now, Kerry and Lieberman are taking the reins. More closed-door meetings are in the works over the next month with several moderate lawmakers from both parties.
"There are clear blocs here, like the Midwestern Democrats," Lieberman said. "I think the support from Midwestern utilities would be helpful in reassuring them their consumers won't be experiencing a big price hike. My hope is a smaller group of oil-producing states will come together and after that it's going to be one by one. It's house-to-house combat."
But it is far from clear if Kerry and Lieberman can be successful.
Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and LeMieux said they have all heard in recent weeks from Kerry and Lieberman, but they also insisted that there are no agreements in place.
"I have reservations about it," Gregg said yesterday. "I like parts of the energy title a lot. I don't think in the framework of how things are evolving relative to the calendar that it's going to go that far, but I respect the fact that they brought it forward and admire them to get the issue into a constructive dialogue."
"There are still some outstanding issues of concern to me, but paramount is of course the idea of exactly what can we do in this moment of time, given the economy and to ensure that we do not create any adverse effects ... on the cost to consumers and cost to business in the short term," Snowe said.
Moderate Republicans also say they do not like the notion that Reid may be setting them up as fall guys responsible for a climate bill not making it to the floor.
"Why would it be our responsibility?" LeMieux said. "There's 41 of us."
Brown, the Ohio Democrat, said Kerry and Lieberman are in a tough spot as they try to strike deals in order to show Reid they have momentum. But he said he does expect to be among the first to come on board once he is successful in pushing for changes on allocations for trade-exposed industries and less presidential discretion when it comes to setting border adjustments on development countries without their own strong climate policies.
"Where's the consensus now? If you don't have [Sen. Debbie] Stabenow and you don't have me, without sounding more important than I am, you don't have 10 Democrats," Brown said. "I've got to assume [Reid is] demanding of Kerry and Lieberman that they deliver something with more consensus than they're getting, including more Republicans."
Yet others see a much wider cast of players necessary in helping to collect 60 votes, starting with Reid. "Senator Reid's the one who ultimately decides what comes up in the Senate," said Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). "He of course wants to assess in each case where the votes are before he makes that decision."
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), co-author with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) of a competing plan for pricing carbon emissions, said yesterday she would prefer that committee leaders get a bigger say in the overall legislation.
"I think there's so much of a process issue here," Cantwell said. "People really want process. They just get so concerned when you don't follow a process. I guess, the chairs, et al, will have to figure out one."
And in other eyes, Obama, Reid, Kerry and Lieberman have to shoulder the burden together. "When you're dealing with an overall energy policy for the country, everyone needs to be part of it," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said yesterday as he left a meeting in Kerry's Foreign Relations Committee office in the Capitol. "Republicans, Democrats, the president."
"All of the above," added Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "Damn right. Look, this is a far reaching thing. We don't have enough believers."
Reporters Robin Bravender and Katherine Ling contributed.