Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is drafting legislation to limit carbon emissions at the nation's power plants, a risky political maneuver that faces divisions within his own party and a Senate clock that is quickly winding down.
Reid (D-Nev.) will place the contentious carbon provision in a broader energy bill that tightens rules around offshore oil drilling, encourages clean energy production and jobs, and reduces oil consumption -- things that might be difficult for some lawmakers to oppose.
No details were provided, however, and the vague announcement yesterday comes as efforts to find 60 senators to support utility emission caps appear to be stuck, with about 20 workdays remaining this summer. Reid hopes to unveil the patchwork bill next week.
A handful of key Democrats and Republicans, meanwhile, remain unconvinced about power-sector caps, which they fear could raise electricity prices for ratepayers and businesses during a recession.
Attempts to secure potential supporters have not yet yielded results, said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the only Republican to announce her support for utility caps. She and her staff are working with Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) office to convince a few lawmakers from both parties to support the plan.
"I'm not so sure that there is sufficient time to build consensus," Snowe said yesterday. "Now maybe that will change. But all the major players, certainly on the Democratic side, will have to sort of regroup on that question as to whether or not they can build support."
The ticking clock might force their hand, she said, noting that supporters for utility caps might only be revealed at the moment of a vote. Snowe said energy legislation with renewable portfolio standards and energy efficiency measures should be brought to floor. Then an amendment containing the utility carbon caps would determine if the chamber is ready to impose a national climate policy.
"I think that's the only way possible at this point," Snowe said of the amendment process. "And that's even an open question."
'Not in my vocabulary'
Reid might be gambling that his bill -- probably a medley of various pieces of legislation -- contains enough attractive features, like provisions addressing aspects of the BP PLC oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, to tempt hedging lawmakers into a yes vote before midterm elections.
Reid is approaching the subject of carbon caps with caution. At home, he is facing a conservative re-election opponent, tea party movement favorite Sharron Angle, who has promised to attack cap and trade as a new tax. Reid described his bill as a tool to address "pollution" from utilities.
"What does pollution mean?" Reid said when pressed by a reporter for details. "It means there's bad stuff in the air."
Moments earlier, he was asked if the bill would place a price on carbon dioxide, considered by supporters as the surest way to encourage utilities to save energy and adopt power from renewable sources.
"Those words are not in my vocabulary," he answered.
One Democratic senator said Reid outlined his legislation in the private caucus meeting earlier in the afternoon. It was not a detailed explanation, but the measure would impose fees on the nation's power plants for releasing greenhouse gas emissions. Bingaman released a legislative draft yesterday that Reid might draw from; it seeks a 17 percent cut in utility emissions by 2020, as compared to 2005 levels.
"He used that term, price on carbon," the senator said of Reid.
The announcement comes amid a flurry of legislative activity in preparation for the upcoming energy debate. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are paring back their "economywide" climate bill to address just utilities. One aide said the offices are working hard to develop different options, though it's unclear if any of them will be used in Reid's bill.
Dems: Cap and trade is a GOP idea
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced legislation yesterday with a renewable portfolio standard requiring utilities to find 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025. She is unhappy with Bingaman's bill, which contains a 15 percent renewable electricity standard.
"The bill that came out of that committee just did not get the point where we need to go," Klobuchar said, referring to the measure by Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "That bill is basically where we are right now."
Democrats also revealed whiffs of their political strategy yesterday around Reid's energy and climate bill. They will seek to rebut Republican opposition to the utility approach by saying it was the GOP that originally envisioned it -- when President H.W. Bush's administration established a cap-and-trade program to address acid rain.
"I guess that's one of the frustrations that many of us feel," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). "It's based on that concept, based on a free-market mechanism, based on a Republican idea, and yet it's been broadly panned or criticized by the bulk of Republicans."
The Capitol maneuvering came as Reid and his leadership team met with President Obama yesterday to discuss the legislative agenda for the dwindling summer session.
The White House hopes the Senate will soon finish financial regulation reform, a popular bill that nonetheless has devoured months of work time, and then pivot to an aggressive agenda that includes extending unemployment insurance, providing loans to small businesses, confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and the energy debate.
That last item, energy, was not an emphasis of the White House meeting yesterday, according to one senator who attended.
And although Reid met later in the day with Carol Browner, the president's energy and climate adviser, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, some senators are hoping that Obama will become more involved in the climate debate.
"This group really wants to talk to the White House, because they believe that we need the president and the White House actively engaged here to have a chance to get something done," Lieberman told reporters after meeting with a group of Democratic senators yesterday.