POLITICS:

White House meeting next week may determine fate of energy/climate bill

The climate bill remained in the Senate's version of limbo yesterday after Democrats emerged from closed-door negotiations without any clear consensus on what version of the legislation -- or blend of the different options -- they should rally behind.

The all-hands-on deck meeting of the Senate Democrats was designed to help illuminate the way forward for what should be included in the package of climate and energy legislation Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring to the floor next month, but members attempting to thrash out what the bill should like did not get any closer to refining the final recipe for the bill.

At the caucus meeting all eyes were on a handful of senators who armed themselves with videos and posters of smoke stacks to help sell three competing versions of climate and energy legislation, but their presentations failed to curry immediate favor for a unified way forward.

"There's not a unanimous consensus on the need to price carbon," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) after emerging from the meeting. "There's a unanimous consensus on the need to move us towards energy independence, away from fossil fuels, away from petroleum."

Similarly, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said "not yet" when asked if any of the approaches offered in the room could garner 60 votes in the Senate.

Senate Democrats heard from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) whose bill creates a national renewable energy standard but does not place a mandatory cap on greenhouse gases, Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) who favors a "cap and dividend" approach, Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose legislation would put a price on carbon, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), who emphasized the economic importance of moving forward with legislation now.

While Reid told reporters yesterday that the hourlong meeting was "productive" and allowed for "full, frank discussion," the caucus ultimately ran out of time directly after the presentations, spurring Reid to announce he plans to hold a follow-up caucus meeting next week at which senators could ask questions and engage in debate over the varying proposals.

"We are not going to tell you today what we're going to have in this legislation because it's a work in progress," Reid told reporters. "The reason we are coming back for another caucus is we understand the importance of this issue. We have no one saying no, we have everyone saying yes. It is a question of how we will be moving forward."

With no new answers about what the path to 60 votes may look like, Senate leaders working on the issue from both sides of the aisle will head to the White House next week for a bipartisan meeting that aims to help knit together the "best ideas from all the legislation to address this on a comprehensive basis," White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Charlie Rose earlier this week. Whether or not the Democratic caucus will have time to meet again before that White House meeting remains unclear.

Competing measures

While Bingaman and Cantwell said after the caucus they are pushing for ways to work together with Reid to develop a comprehensive legislative package that would lead to more clean energy jobs in general, Lieberman and Kerry continued to lobby for their specific bill, which aims to slash emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by mid-century via a mandatory cap on carbon.

"Our bill, the American Power Act creates more jobs, gives us more energy independence and reduces pollution more than any other bill," Lieberman said. "Part of the reason that's so is we have taken a lot from our colleagues Sen. Bingaman and Sen. Cantwell," he said.

The Cantwell bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), would essentially take the "trade" part out of cap and trade and require producers and importers of fossil fuels, but not users of them, to pay for "carbon shares." Three-quarters of the resulting revenue would be returned to the public, they say.

Meanwhile Bingaman's bill, which was passed out of his Natural Resources Committee a year ago, includes a nationwide renewable energy standard and incentive measures for alternative forms of energy. Several moderate senators have said his bill has the best chance of becoming the vehicle for floor debate and that provisions from the Kerry-Lieberman bill could later be added on through amendments.

"If anything has a chance it would be the Bingaman approach," Rockefeller said yesterday. Anything with the word "cap" in it "would be very hard to move" this year, he added.

But even before the caucus luncheon, Kerry and Lieberman attempted to highlight the merits of their approach at a luncheon for at least a dozen invited Democrats and one Republican, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. At that meeting senators heard from General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and executives from Honeywell, Dow Chemical, Vantage Point Venture Capital and Applied Materials about how the American Power Act could help American business.

Lugar may have necessary ingredients

The challenge for Democrats, even if they craft their own legislative package, is finding a few GOP members to help move something across the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

An energy bill introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) did not come up in the meeting, several attendees said, although some Democrats said they were open to merging some of his ideas into whatever plan emerges from the Democratic side.

"I think he's got some good ideas in his bill and a lot of them build on what we've reported out of our committee, " said Bingaman of Lugar. "We want to take them all under consideration, and I think some of them deserve support." He declined to say though which of Lugar's ideas would best fit with circulating Democratic measures.

Lugar's legislation calls for retiring the costliest and oldest coal plants, expanding nuclear power, and increasing efficiency in buildings and vehicles. Unlike the plan offered by Kerry and Lieberman, it does not cap greenhouse gas emissions.

Yesterday the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers criticized the fuel-efficiency standards in Lugar's bill as too costly. But the bill does have the backing of two moderate Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Lugar added he wouldn't rule out combining his bill with Democratic ideas, with one caveat.

"It's conceivable it could get merged. But it will not get merged with anything that has cap and trade and carbon pricing," Lugar said.

Green business groups ready to push

Ahead of the caucus meeting a coalition of nine renewable energy, energy efficiency and biofuels groups signaled they would be willing to throw their support behind legislation that did not put a price on carbon if it meant some form of climate and energy legislation would be pushed through.

The groups penned a letter to senators Wednesday urging them to move quickly to pass comprehensive legislation in order to inject financial support into their industries and create jobs, but notably they did not back one bill or another.

"Ensuring steady growth of the industries that will solve our climate, water and waste challenges will be a critical way to address not only near-term employment challenges but our long-term environmental and energy security goals," the groups wrote. "The time has come for Congress to enact legislation providing long-term support for energy efficiency, renewable energy and biofuels."

"If the goal of putting a price on carbon isn't achievable before Congress adjourns we have to get as much as we possibly can," said Kateri Callahan, President of the Alliance to Save Energy, one of the coalition members.

The groups who signed onto the letter include the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Wind Energy Association, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, the Biomass Power Association, Growth Energy, the Energy Recovery Council, the Geothermal Energy Association, the National Hydropower Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

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