President Obama will attempt to seize control of the Senate's splintered climate debate tomorrow with a goal to achieve some greenhouse gas emission restrictions before midterm elections.
The president will hear from key energy senators from both parties during a White House meeting intended to dislodge the mired Senate climate debate, which appears to have failed to build enough momentum behind a plan to put a price on carbon dioxide.
The move follows a series of signals from the White House last week that sought to redraw the legislative landscape, including a willingness to entertain calls for a slimmer carbon cap applied only on utilities. That is seen by some as a strong assertion by the administration that a leading Senate proposal to charge emitters in the transportation, industrial and electric sectors is too broad to pass.
"I think the chances of a comprehensive bill are abysmal," Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said in an interview last week, referring to legislation offered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
"Do I think there is a chance of something that is narrower for carbon, like the pricing of utilities? I think that's possible," she added. "If all we can get is utilities, it's not bad."
Obama will convene his meeting with less than 30 days of business left on the Senate schedule, racing lawmakers toward confrontational midterm elections punctuated by boiling conservative unrest with expanding government programs, like cap and trade.
A handful of crucial senators are planning to attend, including Richard Lugar (Ind.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), all Republicans whose support Obama will seek to eventually secure. Democrat Sherrod Brown (Ohio), another undecided senator, will also be there, according to a survey of offices by E&E.
Listening to moderates
They will join a bipartisan group of other senators, perhaps including Republicans Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.); the majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid (Nev.); and Democrats Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Kerry and Lieberman, according to press accounts and observers.
But despite the looming deadline for congressional action, Obama might use the meeting to listen, rather than shove undecided lawmakers toward a decision.
"I don't think they're going to come out with a deal," said Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with connections to the administration. "This is a listening session, and [it] will provide data for the president to then go talk to members one-on-one to determine what we need to do to get to 'yes.'"
Key among those senators is Lugar, who is against cap and trade but recently proposed a bill that would cut greenhouse gas emissions through aggressive building efficiency standards, automatic annual increases of 4 percent to vehicle fuel standards, and a "diverse energy standard" that encourages renewable energy, nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage at coal-burning electricity plants.
Those provisions are apt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than the energy bill offered by Bingaman that has a renewable electricity standard and fuel efficiency measures, said Claussen, who described Lugar's plan to phase out some old coal-fired power plants as a "good idea."
Looking at a collection of bills
Other ideas that will also be in play at the White House meeting come from legislation offered by Collins and Cantwell that would cap emissions, restrict allowance trading and rebate households, and from a bill by Alexander and Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) promoting electric car purchases and advanced battery research.
Obama distinctly moved away last week from the bill that has consumed the Senate's attention for the past several months, glancing by the Kerry-Lieberman measure that calls for an economywide carbon cap during his first Oval Office address.
Instead, Obama charted a new path that would borrow provisions from a collection of bills, a calculation that has a better chance to yield 60 votes in the Senate as the wayward BP PLC well in the Gulf of Mexico continues to spray oil into the ocean, according to several observers.
"It seems to me that an amalgam of all these approaches in a time of national emergency can compel a broad-based bill that has robust oil security measures and strong climate provisions," said Paul Bledsoe, an adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center. "In particular, there's an opportunity for a power sector cap in that context."
The climb is likely to be steep, even for a slimmer carbon cap. Lieberman, who recently resisted the idea of only charging utilities for their carbon output, conceded over the weekend that it may help attract support. He said the "American Power Act," which he introduced with Kerry, has only about 50 supporters, meaning that about nine Democrats have refused to get behind it. That's a wide gap.
It's unknown, for example, if Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who is retiring at year's end, can be convinced to back even a limited carbon capping bill.
"He's going to listen," one aide said of Gregg's plan to attend the White House meeting.
A partial carbon cap is 'un-American'?
In several Capitol interviews recently, Gregg has repeatedly called carbon pricing a "tax" that would stall the debate around energy legislation that is needed to spur more renewable energy and nuclear power production.
Gregg did leave an opening, however. Asked if there was any way Democrats could shed the perception that it's a tax, he replied, "Not unless they're willing to return all the money to the ratepayers, which nobody is willing to do."
Even Cantwell-Collins, the so-called "cap and rebate" bill that returns 75 percent of allowance revenue to households, would demand a "big chunk" of money from taxpayers, Gregg said.
Regulating utility emissions is a design already in practice in Gregg's home state and nine other Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which charges fees on 233 power plants, has raised more than $500 million for energy efficiency programs from Maine to Maryland.
But narrowing the focus to utilities doesn't necessarily win over lawmakers who have expressed concern about the cost of carbon caps on manufacturers. Even if factories don't have to pay for emissions directly, they might still be burdened by higher electricity costs resulting from caps on power plants, suggested an aide to Brown of Ohio, a Democrat who is undecided on climate provisions.
"There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how a utility-only bill would affect manufacturers," the aide said. "Industry uses approximately one-third of all electricity in the country, so the assumption that manufacturers wouldn't be impacted by a utility-only bill doesn't hold up."
Murkowski of Alaska, meanwhile, who is facing criticism from a Republican primary opponent over her stand on climate change, has already taken jabs at the idea of a narrower cap-and-trade program. Any caps, even if they are limited to utilities, are a nonstarter, Murkowski said over the weekend.
Her criticism of the president could become sharper if he tries to attach must-pass legislation addressing the Gulf oil spill to a utility carbon cap, said her spokesman, Robert Dillon. Murkowski has introduced measures to hasten BP's compensation to Gulf residents and raise the liability amounts oil companies might pay after a spill.
"If the president is going to use the Gulf residents and hold them hostage to pass a climate bill, I think the American people will see through that," Dillon said. "To play politics with Gulf relief ... that's un-American, and it's unreasonable."