Jeff Bingaman may not garner the headlines of some of his flashier Senate colleagues, but the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has his own way of getting things done.
The subdued New Mexican, a leading Senate pragmatist, has authored many of the pieces of an energy bill Democratic leaders could draw from when they unveil their comprehensive measure this month. They include a renewable electricity standard, a utility-only carbon cap-and-trade plan and legislation to address issues surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Many observers say Bingaman's willingness to compromise and work across the aisle makes him an obvious candidate to help Senate legislation across the finish line.
"I think people feel reassured when Jeff is out there on the floor because they trust him and they believe him and they think he knows what he's talking about," said former Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who chaired the Energy panel in the 1990s.
Bingaman says he focuses on the art of the possible. "I do spend time trying to figure out what's possible and what we can get the necessary votes to pass," he told E&E Daily. "That seems to me to be an essential part of trying to legislate."
Having a less flamboyant style is part of what allows his committee to develop bipartisan legislation, he said. That said, he does not believe compromise is an end-game in itself; sometimes matters come down to a vote.
"I think trying to develop a consensus makes sense in some circumstances. In other circumstances where consensus is not possible, it probably makes more sense to man the barricades," Bingaman said. "As I say, I've concentrated on the consensus building and the consensus development where I could."
Pete Domenici, the former Republican Energy Committee chairman and fellow New Mexican, said Bingaman is "not a high-powered bombastic senator" but rather "a very mild-mannered, well-informed and courteous senator."
Bingaman's low-key style did not hamper the amount of work they got done, Domenici said in an interview.
"I think he may be a little liberal on some of the energy issues as compared with me, but there's plenty of room between ideology and a huge number of realities that you can get done," Domenici said. "The question is can he do that, and I think the answer is yes."
Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), praised Bingaman's ability to report out bipartisan legislation on high-profile legislative issues.
"He's someone who's well-respected among Republicans for his earnestness and his patience for both hearing them out and trying to work with them on energy policy issues in a good faith process," Ueland said. "And that counts for a lot in a Senate which until recently was operated on a Democratic-only model."
Bingaman's willingness to compromise, however, has environmentalists worried Senate Democrats will end up with a weak energy bill that does not adequately address global warming.
"It doesn't appear that his heart is in it, even though I think intellectually he believes that we should be capping carbon," said an environmentalist who spoke on background.
"He'd be an excellent champion if he decided to be a champion," the activist added. "He unfortunately seems to be bringing a defeatist attitude to the table."
Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said Bingaman's record clearly shows that he tries to reach across the aisle and take practical steps. "My sense of him is he's striving for a practical middle ground. Is that going to be the wish list for environmentalists? Absolutely not."
'A wonderful model of a chairman'
In 2005, Domenici and Bingaman pushed through the Energy Policy Act, a comprehensive measure that included a $14.6 billion tax package. Domenici said they "found the secret" to working in a bipartisan way: to start collaborating very early in the process. Instead of having the majority party write a bill and then allow the other side to offer amendments, the two would craft legislation together.
"We started with an attitude of a joint staff writing a basic bill that we worked from, with the staff knowing what we were already for and confirming that on a regular basis," Domenici said. "Once you got that done, you added to it as far as it could go."
The give and take produced a good starting measure, and once the committee had a chance to offer amendments, it resulted in a bill that could pass, Domenici said.
"Senator Bingaman had some places he wouldn't go; some people call that ideological, but I didn't," Domenici said. "He worked with me in other areas that were similar to the ones he would not work on."
Bingaman followed a similar model last year, when his committee passed, 15-8, a bipartisan energy bill that included a renewable electricity standard and expanded offshore drilling. The bill, which at the time was expected to be folded in with cap-and-trade legislation, may now be part of the massive energy plan Senate Democrats hope to take up this month.
"None of us approve of every provision, none of us got everything that we wanted," Bingaman said at the time. "The end product, I believe, is a solid piece of work. It is one which will help not only to enable us to produce new sources of energy but to use our energy sources wisely and more efficiently."
The energy panel works by consensus, former Chairman Johnston said. "Jeff was always very helpful and practical and effective in helping come to those consensuses."
The bipartisan, behind-the-scenes approach is also seen on smaller bills as well; the committee handles some of the largest legislative workloads on Capitol Hill, but markups often only last minutes, rather than hours, as many issues are worked out beforehand.
The committee historically holds more hearings on more bills than any other in the Senate, Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker said, noting the panel has had a hearing or taken significant action on 184 bills so far in the 111th Congress, well above the second-place Homeland Security Committee "at a respectable 116 bills."
The Energy and Natural Resources panel has jurisdiction and oversight over the Interior and Energy departments, as well as the Forest Service. "Every individual bill dealing with national parks, wilderness areas, forests, rivers, trails, public lands and water resources comes in our direction," Wicker said.
Johnston said Bingaman was knowledgeable and reassuring as opposed to aggressive or flamboyant.
"He is very bright, he is very even-tempered. He'd never got mad or abusive or anything, always just always a nice person. That's great. You didn't have to take a long time to describe something to him, he understood, he was a quick study," Johnston said.
Those familiar with the Energy Committee say that approach is particularly important for a committee representing such a wide variety of regional interests. The current panel includes Democratic lawmakers ranging from liberals from coastal states to Southern and Midwestern moderates and several conservative Republicans from energy-producing states.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called Bingaman "just a wonderful model of a chairman."
"He listens to everyone, he's very thoughtful, he gives every member the ability to have input and have their ideas brought forward. He's really wonderful to work with. And very substantive. ... Legislating really means being able to listen and bring out and incorporate the best ideas from everyone, and he really does an extraordinary job on that."
"He's approachable," said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah). "I don't always convince him. But he's thoroughly professional and respectful of the opinions of other folks."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to unveil a four-part energy bill this month that will respond to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, boost energy efficiency, increase clean energy production and limit greenhouse gas emissions from the utility sector.
As the author of several key provisions expected to be folded into the bill, Bingaman is certain to be at the nexus of the upcoming negotiations.
On the oil spill front, Bingaman is the co-author of bipartisan legislation to reform federal oversight of offshore drilling that cleared the Energy panel last month and is expected to be included in Reid's final package.
The bill, co-sponsored by Energy Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), would codify the changes Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made to split the Minerals Management Service into three agencies to separate its leasing, enforcement and revenue collection functions. It would also increase the safety requirements for drilling wells, create an independent advisory board for the department and create a fee on companies to pay for inspections.
And while even proponents of an economywide cap-and-trade program concede that is off the table for this year, Reid signaled plans to include limits on greenhouse gases from the utility sector. Bingaman's working on that, too. He drafted a measure that would cap carbon emissions from just the electric power industry, although he has said he doubts even that narrower approach could get 60 votes in the Senate (Greenwire, July 13).
Johnston predicted that cap and trade or any kind of carbon limit is dead, given the short time Congress will be in session before the November election.
"That doesn't mean it should be dead, or that it's bad legislation," he said. "As far as the clock is concerned, there's only seven weeks left and that's highly complicated legislation. It's highly controversial, not something you can deal with in last days of session. ... He's a miracle man if he can get that done."
An energy-only bill would be easier to pass but still difficult for the same reasons, even in a lame-duck session, Johnston said. "The problem with an energy-only bill is everybody wants to improve it with their own amendment," he said. "An energy-only bill I think is the only chance, and the chances of passing that are not good."
But Senate Democratic leaders may see legislation spearheaded by Bingaman as more likely to win bipartisan support than if it were championed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of a cap-and-trade climate bill who became a partisan magnet after his failed 2004 presidential bid.
"The Democratic leadership probably sees the value of a chairman who was able to preside over a bipartisan work produced on energy last year" as well as bipartisan spill legislation, said Ueland, the former chief of staff to Sen. Frist.
"The further Senate Democrats move away from John Kerry, the better they have a chance of actually passing a bill this year," said Marc Morano, director of the climate skeptic website "Climate Depot" and a former spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "John Kerry, I think, is a very polarizing figure, particularly in the mainstream in terms of trying to get Republican votes and in the public's eye, and John Kerry is also a huge pusher of the climate end of this, not the energy end."
O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch said Kerry provides balance to Bingaman's moderate stands. "From a political standpoint, it certainly makes eminent sense to have some impetus coming from the left so that things don't totally go in the other direction," O'Donnell said.
Bingaman has repeatedly insisted that the Senate should do the most it can this year on climate and energy. His main concern is that Congress not go home empty handed even if it cannot achieve a sweeping carbon pricing bill.
"I'm saying what I've been saying for months, and that is, let's do all we can do, but let's not leave undone those things that we can clearly do, if it turns out we don't have 60 votes to do everything," he said last month.
Taking openings when they exist
This week, Bingaman recalled the difficulty the committee had in reaching an agreement on a renewable electricity standard last year. In the end, the measure required utilities nationwide to provide 15 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2021, while allowing up to a quarter of the requirement to be met with energy-saving measures instead.
"We continued to accommodate concerns that people had and as I say we got a version of a renewable electricity standard agreed to," Bingaman said. "It's not as strong a version as I would have preferred. But there will be a chance to revisit that perhaps" if it comes to the floor.
Environmental groups had called for a renewable standard of 25 percent by 2025.
Indeed, some liberal committee members said the measure is not strong enough. "This is an extremely weak bill, and the only reason I am voting for it is to see if we can strengthen it on the Senate floor," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But in a sign of how delicate major energy bills can be, moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) warned that substantial changes to the bill would lead him to reconsider his support for it on the floor (Greenwire, June 17, 2009).
Bingaman noted there is still "a lot of different options about how that would be designed and how strong that could be" and that the standard likely will be debated if the bill comes to the Senate floor. He said it is "generally the case" to get some legislation approved rather than nothing.
"My experience around the Senate is you should do what you're able to do when you're able to do it," he said. "Because you don't know the opportunity to make that progress will still be there in the future."
That is the approach he took with the 2005 and 2007 energy bills, he added. "And I would favor doing that, taking that same approach here in this Congress if we still are able to."
Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said Bingaman spends time thinking about how to structure legislation and studies issues for quite a while before he steps out.
"He's what I would consider to be a pragmatist in large measure," Fuller said. "He's not a confrontational legislator. He tends to be more of a collegial senator who seeks to get input to his legislative process as broadly as he can. Obviously we're dealing with a fairly partisan Senate so at times he's restricted in what he can do."
Bingaman is receptive to hearing industry's arguments, though they do not always wind up agreeing, Fuller said. Bingaman was instrumental in adding to the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 a marginal well tax credit that Fuller describes as a safety net in case oil or gas prices fall to very low levels.
"When the jobs act of 2004 was reaching its final negotiations in conference, he very quietly worked with the leadership on the committees to bring that provision into the scope of the bill in conference," Fuller said. "He was the person who really took it upon himself to act in that very tight window of time you have during conference."