Senate Democrats may have emerged from their much-hyped caucus meeting without a clear plan for this summer's energy bill, but they appeared to agree on one point: Cap and trade doesn't have the votes.
Several senators say the chamber is unlikely to pass a measure that sets a price on carbon emissions this year, despite President Obama's support for such an approach and a push from many Democrats who say pricing carbon is needed to stop the adverse effects of climate change.
"I don't see 60 votes for a price on carbon right now," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said yesterday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an ardent supporter of setting carbon limits, said he does not think the Senate can get 60 votes this year on a "strong" climate bill.
"For a variety of reasons, with virtually no Republicans supporting us, it would mean that every Democrat has to step up to the plate," Sanders said yesterday. "Do I think we have 60 votes to come up with strong global warming legislation? No. I think that's a tragedy, but that's the way it is."
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he does not think there are 60 votes in the Senate for a cap-and-trade bill like the "American Power Act" advanced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), which would cap greenhouse gas emissions across multiple sectors of the economy.
"There's a better chance of having 60 votes with a straight energy bill," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). And Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he has always thought cap and trade "was a long shot this year, given all the other things that are before Congress -- the short nature of the session and because of the election."
It is unclear whether Obama and Senate Democratic leadership intend to push aggressively for cap and trade or any mechanism to price carbon this year. Obama failed to call for it directly in his Oval Office address this week and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday declined to promise to include a price on carbon in an energy package slated for floor debate next month.
Reid said yesterday that his goals for energy legislation are dealing with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, creating jobs and cutting pollution. "There are many strong passions and arguments about the best way to achieve these goals," Reid said yesterday after the Democratic caucus met to discuss an energy bill. "And I'm always focused on what is possible."
But what is possible remains a contentious issue within Reid's party.
Reid said he would work with committee leaders to come up with a bill that sets "reasonable goals with a reasonable timeframe" and will "overcome whatever hurdles opponents put in our way." But he would not say whether that bill would include a price on carbon.
One of those chairmen said it is not a lock that the Senate can even get 60 votes on an "energy only" bill like the measure (S. 1462) the Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed last summer.
"I can't say yes," Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said when asked whether the Senate could pass an energy bill this year. That is due to the "hesitation factor" in the Senate, he said, "knowing you have absolutely no Republican votes at all."
In a statement yesterday afternoon, Rockefeller said, "the Senate should be focusing on the immediate issues before us -- to suspend EPA action on greenhouse gas emissions, push clean coal technologies, and tackle the Gulf oil spill.
"We need to set aside controversial and more far-reaching climate proposals and work right now on energy legislation that protects our economy, protects West Virginia and improves our environment," he added.
Despite the pessimism, supporters of a cap-and-trade approach say the discussion is not over.
"I don't believe it's not politically possible yet, and we're just going to keep working ahead to see where we're at," Kerry said yesterday. Kerry also eschewed the term "cap and trade," calling the mechanism in his bill a "pollution target."
"I don't think the president and Harry [Reid] and others -- we haven't had a full discussion on it yet -- so I don't know how they can draw that conclusion," Kerry said.
Kerry co-sponsor Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he believes that "a majority of members of the Democratic caucus believe that we're not going to be able to achieve what we want -- which is a strong energy independence bill that creates millions of jobs -- without putting a price on carbon." He said yesterday's Democratic caucus meeting marked "the beginning of a real focus by the caucus on the issue of energy independence, and we'll keep talking about it."
Democrats hope that another caucus meeting slated for next week will help push them closer to a consensus about how to proceed.
"There were a number of discussions today as to how we can arrive at what's best for the country, and of course pricing carbon is part of the discussion," Reid said after yesterday's meeting. Still, he added, "We're not going today to tell you what we're going to have in this legislation, because that's a work in progress."
Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said yesterday's meeting was a presentation of various Senate energy bills. "So it wasn't a chance for people to really interact." He said he hopes they will get that chance at the meeting next week.
"Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, people will come together and come up with a comprehensive plan," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "There's a lot of hurdles to be jumped."
Reporter Josh Voorhees contributed.