CLIMATE:

Senate bill's boosters try smorgasbord strategy in bid for votes

Advocates for a comprehensive energy and climate bill are scrambling to find the Senate votes they need by stitching together ideas from a variety of existing and fast-surfacing proposals.

With time running out on the legislative calendar, top Democrats and the White House have begun a piecemeal review of their options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing oil consumption as they respond to the massive BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Obama administration and its allies on Capitol Hill have settled on what is being called a "buffet strategy" to find 60 votes they need to get a bill done before a new Congress comes in next January.

"What you have is everybody right now is just throwing everything on the table," said Brian Wolff, vice president for communications and government affairs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

Tomorrow, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) meets with key committee leaders to map out a floor strategy for the next two months. A special Democratic caucus is also planned for next Thursday to give all 59 senators a chance to weigh in on pricing carbon emissions and other alternative options for promoting energy efficiency and promoting the use of fewer fossil fuels.

Several legislative ideas are already on the table for them to choose from: Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have the "American Power Act" to cap greenhouse gases; Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) produced a bill last June with a nationwide renewable energy standard; Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have an alternative "cap-and-dividend" approach for pricing carbon emissions; and Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are coming out today with a bill that promotes energy efficiency while avoiding a mandatory price on carbon.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times yesterday that he is expecting to pluck ideas from each of the Senate proposals. "There's enough in each," he told the newspaper, for "a serious and comprehensive energy bill. And you can do it this year."

President Obama himself last week held firm in his call for pricing carbon emissions. And Reid said yesterday he also hoped to see that concept remain in a Senate bill. But exactly what that section of the package looks like remains a wide-open question.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said yesterday she did not think the primary vehicle going to the floor would be the Kerry-Lieberman bill as it was introduced last month. "We never said that," she said. "We said Harry [Reid] was going to write his own bill. Never that that would be the vehicle.

Kerry and Lieberman are fighting just to keep the carbon-pricing mechanism in the bill that kicks off the floor debate, rather than being forced to offer their ideas as an amendment. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested the amendment route earlier this week during an MSNBC television interview but quickly retreated after he ignited a firestorm of complaints from Kerry, Lieberman and environmentalists who fear that strategy would make an already steep climb even harder.

"It's wrong as a matter of policy and what's best for the country," Lieberman said yesterday. "They ought to be together. If you put it on as an amendment, it's like we're a stepchild. Excuse me for that, because I have some stepchildren who I love. It's like we're not the main event. We're a sideshow. That's a better metaphor. If we can fight our way into the arena, great. But that's not where we are. We have to be at the center of the arena."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who worked for about nine months with Kerry and Lieberman on their package, said yesterday that he would not vote for the bill if it hit the floor as introduced last month. For starters, Graham said he disapproved of changes to the sections on oil drilling and how to regulate emissions from the transportation sector.

"What I have withdrawn from is a bill that basically restricts drilling in a way that's never going to happen in the future," Graham told reporters yesterday. "I want it to safely occur in the future. I don't want to take it off the table."

Instead, Graham said he wants to wait until 2011 to work on climate legislation that deals with U.S. EPA regulations of greenhouse gases with a focus on setting limits just on the electric utility industry.

"What I would suggest is that we come back next year to replace the EPA with a comprehensive approach that looks at pricing carbon on the utility side, exempting heavy energy users because the technology's not there to sequester carbon, and on the transportation side, lower emissions without a cap," he said. "That is what I will be pushing next year, a utility-only bill."

Not a 'slam dunk'

But Graham's idea for moving away from a broad economywide cap-and-trade plan could still gain ground this year if electric utility companies gave the signal, said Christine Tezak, a financial analyst with Robert W. Baird and Co. Senate Democrats also could find some regional appeal by removing major manufacturers from the climate program. "Taking industrials off the table can help gain you votes in the Midwest," she said.

Lieberman said he is still insisting on the broader climate bill that also covers the transportation sector. "Not if I can help it," he said of the utility-only approach. "I think the moment is right for comprehensive legislation."

But he added, "I'm not saying ours is the perfect bill."

Kerry has repeatedly pushed back against the utility-only approach too, saying it would make the overall proposal more expensive for business. On Monday, Kerry also told PBS's Charlie Rose that pieces of the energy and climate proposal he initially negotiated with Graham, namely sections on oil drilling, likely will not make it into the bill that is headed to the Senate floor.

"I think we can wind up there," Kerry said. "We may not be able to do everything all in one bite, but the key is to get started at pricing carbon and begin to move down the road."

Paul Bledsoe, a spokesman at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the new Lugar-Graham partnership showcases another dynamic, even if they are not specifically calling for a cap on carbon emissions. He called the energy efficiency provisions of the Lugar-Graham bill "well crafted."

"If implemented with a carbon price, these standards would have a transformative effect on U.S. efficiency and emissions," Bledsoe said. "Each new serious proposal on energy and climate change from key senators increases the chances of getting an energy bill with critical climate provisions this year."

Tezak said Democrats also may have luck in winning votes as they open the door to a variety of requests, from new energy tax laws to the oil spill response and a renewable energy standard.

"The path of adding things people want to a bill instead of trying to skinny it down may be successful in an election year, but even I don't think it's a slam dunk by any stretch," she said.

Indeed, Senate Republican leadership is ready to fight legislation that goes anywhere close to pricing carbon emissions. "We don't think this is a great time to be socking a national energy tax to the American people," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

But Steve Cochran, director of the national climate campaign at the Environmental Defense Fund, said he does not expect Republicans to step out much further right now given the political environment. Even so, he said that is not a sign they won't vote for a final bill.

"They have to do this individually," Cochran said. "Obviously, on their side of the aisle they've got a leadership challenge. They're not looking to disagree with their leader, and he's been pretty clear about being in opposition to anything in this area. So I really wouldn't expect them to go out and try to take a lead on this stuff.

"We'll be looking for their willingness to reach out or be receptive to quiet discussions about how to actually make something work, as opposed to stepping out publicly," he added. "I think stepping out publicly is the last signal they will likely give."

Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.

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