Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is about to take over as stage manager in the uphill push to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation.
Next week, Reid will be handed the reins of the bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions while expanding domestic oil, gas and nuclear power production. His challenge could not be tougher. Along with the climate measure, he must juggle a packed Senate agenda that includes Wall Street reform, a Supreme Court nomination and more economic recovery plans. Reid is also facing perhaps the toughest re-election campaign of his career this fall.
"I'm going to do everything I can," Reid said yesterday.
In an effort to keep the bill in Reid's hands, the sponsors -- Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) won't officially introduce the bill in the Senate when they unveil it to the public next week.
"If we introduce it, it'll get referred to committees," Lieberman said. "We want him to be able to work with it and bring it out onto the floor as a leader whenever he's ready."
Lieberman said the sponsors plan to reference all of the bill (S. 1462) the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed last summer and stressed they have been talking at the staff level with the Finance Committee. Once they roll out the bill, Lieberman said Reid wants all of the relevant Senate committees with a role in the process to take a couple of weeks to outline changes.
"We'll unveil a full legislative language bill for discussion, for people to respond to, to see where we are," Kerry said. "It'll be up to the majority leader at that point where he wants to proceed."
Already, some senators also are raising red flags about the committee process, which they warn may be circumvented if the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal moves directly into Reid's office.
"These bills need to go through committee," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). "If you're talking about making major deals on energy policy, it needs to go through the Energy Committee. If you're making major deals on tax policy, it needs to go through the Finance Committee. I mean, if you want to get it done."
Cantwell and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) are pushing an alternative cap-and-dividend bill (S. 2877) that aims to circumvent the creation of a trillion-dollar carbon trading market.
"Reid is definitely going to be in charge, but he's going to be looking for something that can have good bipartisan support," Cantwell said. "I don't know about refereeing anything. We have one thing that's a bill, that's detailed and some people can look at, and the other thing is something that's still out there still being massaged."
Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a possible swing vote, said he would prefer the committee process remain intact for the energy and climate bill -- rather than shifting the debate into Reid's office. "This concept of going through the leader's office is a new concept in the legislative flow chart," Gregg said.
Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) repeated his call to move to floor debate on S. 1462, the "energy only" approach (see related story).
"There are not a lot of weeks left in this legislative session, and my fervent hope is, I would say to those who have been working on climate change and blocking our ability to bring an energy bill to the floor of the Senate, I hope perhaps we could find a way to work together to bring the energy bill to the floor," Dorgan said. "That's the way the Senate works. The Senate works by running things through a committee."
Dorgan said he would support a floor vote on an amendment that prices greenhouse gas emissions, though he disagrees with allowing companies to buy and sell allowances in a carbon market.
Can he do it?
Reid's role in cobbling together sufficient majorities on other issues cannot be understated. He was praised last December for squeaking out a narrow victory on health care legislation with no GOP support and remained steadfast defending the bill despite a public backlash over some of the deals he helped broker with moderate Democrats who held out until the very end. On climate change, he is likely to face a similarly close vote, though he should have some degree of help from moderate Republicans.
Environmentalists say they are glad Reid -- a former middleweight amateur boxer -- is in their corner.
"One thing is pretty clear, Reid does not have an enviable task," said Frank O'Donnell, head of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "The bill is going nowhere unless Reid plays arbiter among the various Democratic factions. But how does he then avoid partisan Republican opposition?"
"He has to walk a tightrope as Senators [Jim] Inhofe and [Mitch] McConnell and the other obstructionist sharks circle below," said Jeremy Symons, the senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation. "Reid seldom seeks the spotlight, but he knows how to get things done, and I am thankful he is on the side of action when it comes to clean energy, our environment and energy independence."
In the lead-up to this year's Senate climate debate, some have said the model for mustering 60 votes is former Majority Leader George Mitchell, the Maine Democrat who swayed swing-vote lawmakers with help from advisers to then-President George H.W. Bush, all leading up to a 89-11 win on the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.
But O'Donnell does not see many similarities.
"The biggest difference from 1990 is that the first President Bush was from a different party than George Mitchell, so it was a bipartisan arrangement among the big dogs," said O'Donnell, a journalist at the time. "So far, there are no Republican big dogs willing to sniff Reid's hind quarters on this issue.
"Lindsey Graham, though trying hard to run with a bone in his mouth, isn't quite there," he added.
The political landscape was also different, with Democrats on the verge then of picking up more seats in Congress in 1990 running against an opposition White House. "This time, they are expected to lose political power even if they retain House and Senate majorities," O'Donnell said. "That perception -- and the obvious fact that Reid himself is threatened -- reduces Reid's leverage."
Andrew Wheeler, former staff director to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), also said the upcoming election could play a role for Reid. "He is in the tightest re-election campaign of his career, and the energy priorities of Nevadans are in general not the same as the Democratic caucus," Wheeler said. "He is in a very tight spot."