The fate of comprehensive energy and climate legislation rests in the hands of about 30 senators.
The list includes coal and Rust Belt Democrats, Westerners and moderate Republicans. They bring several high-profile issues to the forefront that, if satisfied, offers several potential paths to the bill's lead authors looking for the magic 60 votes.
Senators and their aides acknowledge the talks are not easy, with each compromise requiring considerable carve outs to satisfy different parts of the country. Yet key sponsors say they are willing to bend if it means scoring an agreement.
"We're going to have to go outside of our comfort zone," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a principal author of the climate and energy package, said last week. "That's how it's going to get done."
"There's the potential for a broader coalition supporting this," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
E&E's latest assessment of the Senate climate debate counts 41 "yes" or "probably yes" votes on a comprehensive bill that includes a first-ever price on domestic greenhouse gases. Another 29 fall in the "no" and "probably no" camp.
That leaves the 30 "fence sitters," 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans, who have expressed varying degrees of interest in the overall energy and climate issue during the Obama administration.
To get any of them to leave the fence and support a bill will require significant dealmaking on a range of key issues. Some of them overlap, meaning a "yes" vote may require more than one concession.
Here is a closer look at some of the debates to watch as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Lieberman push ahead.
Coal: about 20 senators in play
No single constituency group is more widely represented in the fence-sitter group than senators from states where coal makes up more than 40 percent of its energy supply.
From Arkansas to Montana, these coal-state senators are positioned well to extract key concessions.
So what do they want?
Several Democrats have called for less aggressive emission limits compared with the 17 percent cut from 2005 levels by 2020 in the House-passed bill (H.R. 2454). They want valuable emission allowances returned to consumers who could suffer from higher energy prices and want to strip U.S. EPA of its authority.
And they are seeking billions of dollars in cash to promote the deployment of "clean coal" technologies, such as carbon capture and underground storage.
Sponsors indicated they are willing to go along with many of the coal state senators' requests, possibly freeing up votes from the likes of Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).
But others have been much more hostile. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) disagrees with the push for a climate bill and instead prefers an energy-only approach. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) have questioned the economic costs of moving too fast and too aggressively.
And Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has even unveiled a campaign ad touting her opposition to cap-and-trade legislation, a point not lost on Democratic leadership.
"It underscores the difficulties this bill faces," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "There's large Republican opposition, and we've got at least a handful of Democrats, if not more, with concerns ranging from outright opposition to very strong concerns."
Nuclear power: about 18 senators in play
Provisions to promote the expansion of nuclear power in the United States means a large contingent of fence-sitting senators are at the bargaining table.
Eighteen of the 30 senators on E&E's list come from states that are home to commercial nuclear industries: Arizona's John McCain (R), Arkansas' Lincoln and Mark Pryor (D), Florida's George LeMieux (R), Louisiana's Mary Landrieu (D), Massachusetts' Scott Brown (R), Michigan's Levin and Stabenow, Missouri's Claire McCaskill (D), Nebraska's Ben Nelson (D), New Hampshire's Judd Gregg (R), Ohio's Brown and George Voinovich (R), Pennsylvania's Specter, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander (R) and Bob Corker (R), Virginia's Jim Webb (D), and Washington's Maria Cantwell (D).
Some details have already emerged on what will go into the bill for nuclear power. Kerry has promised tax incentives and loan guarantees. And Graham has floated a "clean energy standard" that would allow power sources to count new nuclear capacity alongside wind and solar power when it comes to reaching nationwide targets.
Lieberman took the lead on talks to write the nuclear title with about 16 Democrats and Republicans. He said in October that he did not expect to win everyone's vote. But he said he would get enough to make it matter. "In the end, as so often happens in the Senate, if you get two, three, four senators to go one way that they hadn't been, it could affect the outcome," he said (E&E Daily, Oct. 9, 2009).
Yet not everyone will find the nuclear proposal acceptable. McCain, facing a conservative primary challenge this summer, is holding out for a larger package that includes reprocessing and permanent waste storage.
"You know I'm always deeply disturbed about the fact there's no meaningful nuclear power component," McCain said last week.
Trade-sensitive industries: about 13 senators in play
Another core constituency includes senators representing states with trade-sensitive industries, from iron ore to cement and glass.
Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin of Michigan and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio are taking the lead on this section of the bill but have so far stayed clear of releasing any specifics.
"We want this bill to work for jobs," Brown said as he left a meeting hosted by Kerry, Graham and Lieberman last week. "It's ultimately an energy independence, jobs and environmental bill together. We don't have details yet, but we're making progress."
Senators raising concerns about manufacturing issues intersect closely with the coal interests listed above, including Bayh, Specter, Rockefeller and Byrd.
Those four, for example, took the lead last summer in writing to Obama with a pledge to oppose any climate legislation that did not come with a "border adjustment mechanism" that would allow for trade sanctions on carbon-intensive goods from developing countries that do not have strong enough climate policies (E&ENews PM, Aug. 6, 2009).
Obama had previously criticized such a provision in the House-passed bill. The senators also have requested "short-term transitional assistance" for energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries, as well as a more robust U.S. policy to measure, monitor and verify emission reduction plans from other countries.
Oil and gas drilling: about 13 senators in play
One of the most delicate balancing acts involves how to expand domestic oil and gas production without killing support among environmentalists and some of their closest allies on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) earlier this year responded to Graham's requests for ideas by including a plan for directional drilling at Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"I'm saying that you want to have me sit down at the table and talk about what a strong domestic production piece is, you have to be willing to talk to me about ANWR," Murkowski said last week. "Pretty simple."
But like Social Security, ANWR is a third-rail issue on Capitol Hill that has little chance of advancing given opposition in environmental circles. Landrieu last week said "almost everything else that's possible" is on the table. And Robert Dillon, a Murkowski spokesman, said yesterday that his boss would not preclude voting for a climate bill even if it did not have ANWR.
Several other senators come into play with the drilling language, including several who worked with Graham in 2008 on the issue as members of an informal energy "gang." They include Nebraska's Nelson, Corker, Lincoln and Pryor.
Yet Kerry and allies also must address coastal state lawmakers who have taken issue with drilling off their coasts. Sources say they are watching to see if any movement on drilling ends up losing reliable Democratic "yes" votes, such as Florida's Bill Nelson and New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez.
Sector-specific emissions limits: about 12 senators in play
The Senate trio opened some new doors with plans to scale back their effort on the carbon pricing mechanism from the sweeping, economywide House-passed bill.
Last week, several moderates said they were more accepting of a phased-in approach for mandatory greenhouse gas limits, beginning with the electric utility industry and then moving toward manufacturers. They also said they would be OK with the nation's transportation fuels falling under a carbon tax that rises based on compliance costs for the other major emitters.
"I think he's trying to approach this in a creative way and I'm listening," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said last week after meeting with Kerry. "It's better than where they started."
"I felt I got a lot of what I needed, understanding the timetable and the schedule, and what sources will be regulated first, which won't be," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
To be sure, none of the fence sitters said they were ready to vote "yes" based on the broad brush briefings they got from Kerry, Graham and Lieberman.
Still, the idea of a "hybrid" system that folds together a number of past legislative ideas on carbon pricing may end up striking a chord. Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), two fence sitters, have been pushing for months an alternative plan for distributing emission allocations, with the bulk auctioned off and some three-quarters of the revenues returned to the public.
Cantwell last week said she was getting a bit impatient with Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. "I can't wait to see a bill," she said. "I can't wait to see language."
That view, more than other, reflects the views of the moderates. "It's kind of like feeling the elephant when you've got the blindfold on," Murkowski said. "The trunk feels entirely different than the tail and the leg. And right now, we're just feeling maybe the trunk, and I want to know what the leg looks like and what the tail looks like."
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