Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abandoned efforts to reduce carbon emissions from the nation's power plants yesterday, marking the first major legislative setback for President Obama, who entered office vowing to address climate change.
Reid (D-Nev.) was cornered into the decision after a handful of Democrats and Republicans failed to be swayed by an 18-month effort in Congress to charge corporate polluters for releasing carbon dioxide. The move will likely leave a national climate bill passed by the House last summer lifeless.
The majority leader will scramble instead to pass a modest measure with politically safe provisions addressing the BP PLC oil spill and energy efficiency in buildings and promoting the use of natural gas in big trucks, before the Senate adjourns for August recess.
"I had to make a decision. Here's the decision I made," Reid told reporters after meeting privately with the Senate's 59 Democrats. "We know we don't have the votes."
The decision ignited despair among some environmental groups and renewable energy coalitions, which see a rare opportunity slipping away. Democrats are at risk of losing their majority in the House and perhaps several seats in the Senate during midterm elections in November.
"It is time for all of us to make our voices heard. Over the recess we must deliver a message to senators: 'Do your job!'" David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "Don't fail us. Don't fail our children. Don't come home again without having tackled these real and present dangers."
Reid's inability to corral 60 votes undercuts, at least temporarily, the Obama administration's climate agenda, following the president's personal intervention in worldwide negotiations last December that established a national commitment to cut carbon 17 percent by 2020.
"Now, obviously, everyone is disappointed that we do not yet have agreement on comprehensive legislation," Carol Browner, the president's adviser on energy and climate change, said after joining Reid in the caucus meeting. "We will continue to work with the senators to craft important comprehensive legislation."
Kerry preserves hope
She made it clear that the White House will continue to pressure lawmakers with its biggest stick: U.S. EPA regulations on carbon that are poised to take effect in January. Those rules could be much more rigorous than legislation designed by Congress to soften the economic impact on electricity producers and other businesses.
Still, Browner avoided a question afterward about whether this Congress -- with both chambers being held by large Democratic majorities -- represented the administration's best chance at passing controversial climate policies.
"We will continue to use all of the tools available to us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," she said as reporters crowded around her in a Capitol hallway, referring to the EPA regulations that resulted from a ruling by the Supreme Court. "The president believes in the science, he believes in the Supreme Court decision, and we will continue to move forward."
Similar threats over the past year have had muted affect. Impending EPA regulations that could require expensive equipment to be installed at thousands of power plants across the country failed to convince hesitant Democrats and Republicans to support more lenient legislation.
One Democrat who opposed capping emissions, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, indicated that ripening EPA regulations would not be the deciding factor on his future vote on climate policies. "I have such a view of the balance of power between the three branches of government that I don't feel like the EPA's in any position to threaten us," he said after leaving yesterday's caucus meeting.
Reid left open the possibility that efforts to cap carbon emissions in the electric power sector could resume this fall. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), an architect of Senate climate policies, vowed to continue pushing.
"Harry Reid, today, is committed to giving us that opportunity, that open door over the next weeks, days, months, whatever it takes to find those 60 votes," Kerry said. "The work will continue every single day."
At one point, Kerry likened the climate effort to a decades-long attempt to restructure health care, which occurred this year under Obama. "This is not going to take that long," he said of climate legislation.
Reid made 'realistic judgment'
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said it's still possible that the Senate could vote on climate legislation in the fall. But Karpinski, who is regularly seen in the Capitol appealing to lawmakers, also pointed to backup plans. They include defending EPA's carbon regulations from attacks by Republicans and industry, attacks that could increase if the House is under GOP control.
"Next year, the focus should be on pushing EPA to get the job done," he said.
Senate climate efforts have staggered since they began, stretching back to an unpopular bill that mirrored the House's cap-and-trade plan covering most of the nation's big emitters. Kerry, an author with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), pivoted away from that bill and joined Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to draft a business-friendly plan addressing three pillars of pollution separately: electricity generation, transportation and industrial factories.
That, too, failed to gain traction, receiving perhaps 50 supporters at its height early this summer. That's 10 short of passage and a wide divide in the Senate.
Democrats further narrowed their focus to utilities, a source of almost 40 percent of the nation's emissions. The proposal never left the ground, and a bill was never introduced, despite assertions by Reid last week that he was drafting a measure to address utility emissions.
So the majority leader's decision was made for him, say colleagues and observers, who saw the climate effort limp through a year plagued by economic distress and scientific scandals that bruised the belief around global warming.
"I think the majority leader is realistic, and he's pragmatic," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
"Given the time constraints, this is probably a realistic judgment on his part," observed Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "He's anxious to get something done before we leave in August."
Not the president's fault?
The decision, however, drains months of work by Bingaman's committee, which passed an energy bill last year with elements that were attractive to renewable energy developers and conservationists. Reid declined to adopt the bill's 15 percent renewable energy standard (RES) for his measure, which he plans to debate on the Senate floor next week.
"A refusal to pass an RES is an attack on every American worker and consumer," Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement, asserting that 360,000 new and existing jobs are at risk of being lost. "It is beyond comprehension that we are now hearing that the [Bingaman] bill may never be brought to the Senate floor."
"Enough is enough," added Gillian Caldwell, the campaign director of 1Sky, a coalition of environmental groups that claims to have 200,000 activist members. "The Senate and the Obama administration must break the fossil fuel industry's stranglehold on our political system and show the leadership necessary to take us from the BP spill to a strong clean energy and climate bill."
Reid focused his blame for failing to reach 60 votes on Senate Republicans. He asserted that "not one" lawmaker from the other side of the aisle stepped forward, despite Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) efforts to advance a utility cap.
But it has always been clear that several conservative Democrats, like Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, were against the climate effort.
"Reid can hardly blame Republicans for opposing legislation that would raise energy prices on Americans, when his own party doesn't even support the idea," countered Robert Dillon, the spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Obama, too, has been identified as a contributor to the scuttled climate effort. Environmental groups have been urging his administration in private and public to get more involved in writing the climate bill. Several sources in the Senate and in the environmental community have privately complained that the administration failed to take a leadership role.
Browner and Reid both insisted that was wrong.
"President Obama personally has talked to me many times about energy legislation and moving forward," Reid said. "So for anyone to think the president hasn't been involved in this simply is mistaken."