The summer strategy for passing energy and climate legislation will depend heavily on how much political capital President Obama is willing to invest in the effort, the Senate's top Democrat said on the eve of a meeting at the White House.
"I think it's pretty clear we have to do something; the question is, what do we do?" Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters today. "And a lot of that depends on what the White House is going to do to help us get something done."
Reid's comments come as he and a select group of bipartisan senators are slated to travel to the White House tomorrow morning to meet with Obama and administration officials for the latest round of climate talks.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he hoped the president would seize the opportunity to lay out specifically what he wants the Senate to accomplish in the coming months.
"I want to hear what he's going to do, how engaged he's going to be in this and how important it is to him and what his strategy is to begin to move it," Brown said.
Still, Brown cautioned that tomorrow's meeting is not Obama's last chance to offer his input. "It's a good time to," he said. "It's not the only time to."
Democratic leaders are scrambling to find a consensus among their caucus on the best way to proceed with energy and climate legislation, with the party's more liberal members still holding out hopes for a bill that prices carbon in a number of key sectors, and moderates pushing to move forward with a scaled-down carbon cap or even energy-only legislation.
White House officials have said tomorrow's meeting will be a mix of discussion and "trying to bridge some differences," an attitude echoed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) today.
"I suspect that we may make some progress and agree to certain features that a bill would have," said Boxer, the Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman. "I'm hoping it'll be more of a working session than everybody saying their piece, which is what we did the last time."
Still, a number of other invited lawmakers appear to be heading into the morning meeting with their expectations firmly in check.
Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said Democrats were unlikely to present a united front either heading into the meeting or leaving it. "Going in? No," Rockefeller said. "Coming out? I doubt it."
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said she doesn't expect to leave the White House with a clear idea of what the president wants. "I expect it to be more of an opening discussion," she said.
"I'm hoping he's going to listen to us," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters today.
Murkowski plans to push the president to advance a bipartisan energy bill that cleared the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last summer. That bill, from Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), includes a renewable electricity standard but no cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
"I'm going to repeat much of what I said at the last gathering -- that we have an energy bill that came out of the committee a year ago that is a good, sound base," said Murkowski, the energy panel's ranking member.
"I'm also going to reiterate my concern that our initiative, our imperative right now, should be to provide the help and the assistance to those in the Gulf, and if there is an effort that ties relief to the victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to an energy bill that simply does not stand a chance of passage, then we are not doing justice to those who have been harmed by this disaster," Murkowski said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) also sees more political traction for the energy-only approach than for a bill that includes a price on carbon.
"At some point, again, a year has passed since we passed an energy bill that ought to merit some attention here, and a year has passed in which others have blocked it, saying we can't proceed to deal with energy policy unless it contains comprehensive climate change," Dorgan said. "It will be a failure on all of us at the end of the year if we don't make some progress here."
"I just don't think there are 60 votes for a broader climate change bill," he said.
Liberals 'not ceding any ground'
Some of the more liberal senators insisted today that they are still hoping to include a controversial price on carbon in any legislation that reaches the floor, despite critics' assertions that it is not politically viable this year.
"We're still focused on a comprehensive energy bill that would price carbon," Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said today after emerging from a climate meeting with Kerry and Lieberman. "We were focused on a comprehensive bill. We're not ceding any ground. We're still hopeful."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said there was a consensus among the Democrats in the room that "it's not enough just to do an energy-only bill."
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) laid out his requirements for supporting an energy and climate bill today in a letter to Reid.
"I am concerned that the current legislative proposals we are examining are by no means strong enough in terms of energy efficiency and sustainable energy," Sanders said. "In fact, the Kerry-Lieberman bill provides much greater funding for nuclear and coal (via carbon sequestration -- an expensive and yet unproven technology), than for efficiency and sustainable energy."
Sanders said any bill brought to the floor this year must invest 10 percent of allowances from a global warming bill into energy efficiency and renewable energy; reinstate a moratorium on new offshore drilling; and increase the renewable electricity standard to 25 percent by 2025.
Click here to read Sanders' letter.
Reporter Katherine Ling contributed.