Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is either holding his cards close to the vest or he is waiting to be dealt a hand.
Regardless, the Nevada Democrat's decision to remain silent on what will be in the climate and energy bill he hopes to take to the floor soon has his own party holding its breath.
"We are now waiting for Harry," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told reporters on the way into yesterday's caucus lunches, where many had expected Reid to finally get specific about the details of his legislative plan.
But Democrats left the lunch with no better handle on what Reid has in mind for his legislation, including whether it will include a controversial plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
"Literally, there was some discussion right at the end for five minutes," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said of the meeting. "All these other issues took on a life of their own, expanded and left us with relatively little time to talk about energy issues."
Upon leaving yesterday's meeting, Reid's message was a familiar one to those tracking the Senate climate debate.
"We're going to make a decision in the near future," Reid told reporters. He said that Democrats would meet again tomorrow to discuss energy and climate but still he cautioned that the topic would be only one of "a number of things" on the agenda.
Reid said last week that the four-part plan he was working on would directly address carbon dioxide emissions from electric utilities, but he appears to be keeping his distance from the ongoing negotiations between the industry and Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on that issue.
"I know almost nothing about it," Reid said regarding a morning meeting between Kerry, Lieberman and industry representatives.
Reid's evasiveness appears to be frustrating some in his own caucus.
"I assume he's got to make a decision this week because we're about to run out of time," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who added that he had stopped working with colleagues on legislative proposals for the bill because of the uncertainty.
"I'm not working with anyone," Bingaman said. "I'm waiting for Senator Reid to tell us what he's planning to do."
Lieberman was more gentle in his remarks but nonetheless appeared agitated with the tight time frame that Reid has imposed on the negotiations.
"These are big and important issues regarding energy independence, pollution reduction, job creation," he said. "That requires some time, so I hope that we are not going to force ourselves to be constrained by an artificial schedule."
Lieberman suggested that given everything that still remains in flux, the Senate might be better dealing with energy and climate legislation in a lame-duck session after the November elections. But he conceded that was not his decision to make.
"The schedule is Senator Reid's setting, not mine," Lieberman said.
With Reid aiming to bring a bill to the floor sometime next week, many observers expect him to unveil its specifics this week.
A handful of aides for several key Democrats gathered outside of today's meeting hoping to learn what those details were but, like everyone else, they left Reid's brief press conference still in the dark.
"I'm waiting to find out just like you guys," one aide told reporters.
Republicans, meanwhile, are also questioning Reid's slow pace of play and some are wondering aloud if he is bluffing.
"He's waiting until we have, like, two or three days to tackle a subject that usually takes seven or eight weeks," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). "So that makes it very difficult."
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), once targeted by Democrats as a possible 60th vote for their climate efforts, was even more pessimistic about Reid's chances of rounding up the votes to pass a bill that directly addresses carbon emissions.
"Anybody that has been in the Senate for any period of time knows there is no way, no way, that an energy bill is going to be done between now and the election and now and the end of this year," Voinovich said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the sole Republican who has indicated that she is open to the idea of a utility-only cap, said yesterday that she, too, is eager to hear what Reid's plans are.
"I just don't know what they are going to decide, whether or not they can even bring up an energy piece between now and August," Snowe said. "It might be less likely, given the limited time we have and the remaining items on our agenda."
Reid's relative silence and the growing frustration among some in his caucus are a sharp departure in tone from where the party was a month ago.
Reid and other party leaders left a policy lunch late last month with what they hailed as a renewed sense of unity around efforts to boost clean energy and curb greenhouse gas emissions. They called that meeting "inspirational," "powerful" and even "thrilling."
"Whatever form it takes, we're going to move forward," Reid said at the time of Democrats' climate and energy agenda.
But those words were not on Democrats' lips yesterday.
"Everyone has to understand, you can focus all the attention on us, and I appreciate you doing that, but we're still trying to find a Republican, or two or three to help with energy," Reid said.
But even if they do find a couple of Republicans to break with their own party's leadership, Democrats would still need to keep their caucus mostly united, something that is proving difficult. In the past week alone, they have learned that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and newly sworn in Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.) will not support any of the current carbon-capping proposals on the table.
"It's one of those ironies where some people won't vote for a bill that doesn't begin to address carbon, and some people won't vote for a bill that does address carbon even in a modest way," Carper said.
Utility sector demands
Lieberman and Kerry held their latest round of talks with representatives from the utility sector early yesterday, and the pair have a long way to go toward winning industry support, Lieberman said.
Lieberman said he and Kerry may need until the fall to strike a deal with the utility sector, something that is seen as a prerequisite for the plan to cap emissions from power plants to win the needed 60 votes to avoid a Republican filibuster.
"I know there is a certain awkwardness in a lame-duck session, but these are big and important issues," Lieberman said.
Reid declined to answer questions about exactly when he would unveil a bill and when it would reach the floor. But according to Carper, who spoke with Reid yesterday morning, the top Senate Democrat is not keen on a lame-duck debate.
"My sense is that he's willing to set aside a couple of weeks to work on energy policy during this work period, but maybe not later," Carper said.
But Lieberman said such a time frame will make it difficult, if not impossible, to win over the utility sector.
"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. "So they pleaded for more time, so I think that is something we should consider."
Lieberman said that utilities would rather see a larger cap like the one he and Kerry proposed earlier this year, but that the industry is open to a carbon limit on just its sector in exchange for industry-friendly emissions allowances and relief from several existing Clean Air Act rules. But Lieberman cautioned that he and Kerry had yet to commit to any of the demands and were discussing them as part of the bargaining process.
"These are all topics of negotiation," the senator said. "That is what we are supposed to be doing here."
Reporters Katherine Ling, Allison Winter, Alex Kaplun and Mike Soraghan contributed.