Senate Democrats appear unsure how to proceed on major energy legislation, with just days remaining on the Senate's summer schedule. The uncertainty is prompting grim forecasts for the passage of any bill -- one containing climate provisions or not.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) raised fresh questions yesterday around his willingness to push for greenhouse gas reductions in the electric power sector, telling Democratic senators in a private lunch meeting that he's considering several paths forward. One possibility is an energy bill that doesn't address utility emissions, said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
"He walked us through a number of options [and] asked people to think about it, talk about it with one another, and come back to him," Carper told reporters yesterday. "One option is to do nothing [on energy], which I think would be a very bad option."
The repositioning comes one week after Reid outlined plans to unveil a four-part bill with a title addressing utility emissions. It prompted excitement among Senate aides who had worked for months drafting carbon legislation. At the time, though, Reid's office sought to be vague, describing the utility provision as one that would address "cleaner power, curbing pollution and regulatory certainty."
Reid had hoped to introduce the bill as soon as this week, with debate beginning perhaps next week. He declined yesterday to pinpoint his new target for debate, saying Democrats will convene a meeting Thursday to discuss a path forward.
"One of the measures that I'm looking at contemplates something on utilities," Reid told reporters yesterday. "We're really not at a point where I can determine what I think is best for the caucus."
'Less than a week' to pass bill
The summer work period, meanwhile, is quickly expiring, with about 13 days remaining before a monthlong recess is scheduled to begin. Some senators are expressing concern that it may already be too late to delve into an "energy-only" bill, let alone one that seeks to cut carbon from thousands of power plants across the country.
"It's very difficult to see how we pass any major energy legislation in the remaining time," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday. "It takes a long time to pass energy legislation if you give people a chance to offer amendments."
Reid, Bingaman said, told Democrats in the lunch meeting that he "hasn't decided what to do."
"He said he has not made a final decision as to what to bring to the floor," said Bingaman, whose committee has approved an energy bill with a 15 percent renewable portfolio standard, energy efficiency provisions and funding for clean energy research.
Reid's hesitation appears to be frustrating several Republicans who were considered potential supporters of carbon caps. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the Senate "might accomplish something" if Reid focuses on "areas of agreement," like electric car research, expanding nuclear power and renewable energy.
"We've had an entire year and a half when clean energy has been an obvious subject for debate and discussion in the Senate, and where there's substantial agreement on several areas. And we have yet to see a bill come to the floor," Alexander said. "Unfortunately, he's waited until a time of the year when we literally have less than a week to deal with an issue that usually takes seven or eight weeks."
"Can I be very candid with you?" asked Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). "This whole thing is very cynical. Anybody that's been in the Senate for any period of time knows there's no way -- no way -- that an energy bill is going to get done between now and the election, or for that matter, between now and the end of this year."
"The bottom line is, I think, a lot of this is just stuff that [Reid] is putting out to try to make people feel good out there that care about this stuff," he added. "Cap and trade is dead, OK?"
Utilities want more time
Elsewhere in the Senate, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) continued negotiating with the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute (EEI) in an effort to find common ground around electricity-sector carbon caps.
A Democratic decision three weeks ago to scale back economywide carbon regulations to just power plants would raise the cost of compliance for utilities and their ratepayers. The talks are aimed at relieving those corporate concerns.
"They want to work with us to see if they can negotiate an agreement on a utility-only bill, but as far as they are concerned, they can't do it in 10 days," Lieberman said of EEI. "So they pleaded for more time, so I think that is something we should consider" (E&ENews PM, July 20).
Reid told reporters he was not aware of Lieberman's request to stretch the energy debate into the midterm election season this fall, or beyond.
That would be the last thing that some observers want. One former Democratic aide close to the negotiations between industry and supporters of capping power plant emissions believes Reid should jettison the carbon provision.
"It's clear a cap is going nowhere, and all the negotiations are doing now is reducing the likelihood of [passing] critical energy bill provisions," the source said, pointing to a renewable electricity standard, energy efficiency measures and funding for technological research aimed at reducing oil consumption.
"They've just frozen us in time, and time is running out," the source added. "At a certain point, you have to face political reality."
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