White House seeks to bolster role in Senate energy talks

The White House is trying to assert its influence over the Senate climate debate after President Obama's nationwide energy address left some questioning how aggressively the president will push for comprehensive climate and energy legislation.

Obama made calls yesterday morning to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), both sponsors of competing Senate energy bills, and the White House announced plans to host a bipartisan group of senators next week to discuss the path forward on an energy package.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also insisted that the president remains committed to passing legislation that caps carbon dioxide emissions, fending off claims that the president backed away from the approach in his Oval Office speech Tuesday night.

"I think it is safe to say that the president's direction on energy is very similar to the direction that is in the Kerry-Lieberman bill and that the president feels strongly that including a component to deal with climate is important in comprehensive energy reform," Gibbs said.

The energy and climate bill co-sponsored by Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would cap domestic greenhouse gas emissions across multiple sectors of the economy. Many Senate Democrats and environmentalists say such a broad approach is needed to combat global warming, but critics say tagging a carbon price onto energy legislation would make it politically toxic.


Obama called for a climate and energy bill Tuesday night, but he noticeably offered few specifics and expressed a willingness to consider alternative plans as Senate Democrats prepare to assemble a package slated for floor debate next month. The full Democratic caucus is expected to meet later today to discuss which elements it will draw from various proposals.

To some, Obama's omission of any mention of a price on carbon indicates that the president is not planning to embark on the uphill climb it would take to get 60 votes for such an approach to clear the Senate.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the Senate's most vocal foes of climate legislation, said Obama did not mention a carbon cap because he knows the approach does not have enough support. "He realizes the votes just flat aren't there and the whole Kerry-Lieberman thing that's supposed to be different from the rest is no different -- cap and trade is cap and trade."

Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, also said it was noteworthy that the president made no mention of "climate change," a "price on carbon" or "cap and trade."

"I think he'd like to get a bill that moves us as far forward as possible on all of these issues," Claussen said. "I also think he's a realist, and the chances of getting everything he might want are abysmally small."

Lieberman maintained that Obama has not backed away from his commitment to include a carbon-pricing mechanism in the Senate bill.

"The one specific big thing that he did say was that ... he had strong positive words to say about the House bill, which of course is a comprehensive energy bill," Lieberman said. "So I took heart from that and I prefer to focus less on what he did or didn't say specifically, and not only the tone of the remarks but also what he does know, that's the important thing. And I think he's gone right to work."

Obama's only mention of climate was to applaud the House for passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill last summer, saying the chamber acted on principles he laid out as a candidate "that would move our country towards energy independence."

Others said it was appropriate that Obama's speech addressing the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico was not bogged down with the administration's political priorities.

"I think the main focus of the speech was to report to the country on what his administration is doing and is planning on doing regarding the oil spill," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) "It was not a speech to Congress, and appropriately he didn't get into a lot of detail about his legislative recommendations."

Notably, Obama did mention -- though not by name -- a renewable electricity standard, "to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power," in his speech. That is included in Bingaman's bill (S. 1462) his Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed last year.

Obama also noted suggestions to increase building efficiency standards and increase spending in energy research and development.

"All of these approaches have merit and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead," Obama said Tuesday. "But the one approach I will not accept is inaction."

Will 'price on carbon' follow 'public option?'

The White House yesterday also refuted claims that the fate of a mechanism to price carbon will mirror that of the "public option" during the health care debate last year, where Obama dropped his call for a public insurance plan to compete with the private sector after Republicans assailed the approach, calling it a government takeover of health care. In the end, Obama signed a health care bill without the public option.

"You know, I don't know why at this point it would be pertinent to get into hypotheticals," Gibbs said today when asked whether comparisons to the public option are fair.

Scott Segal, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani, said Obama's "failure to clearly articulate support for cap-and-trade seems to paint that proposal with the same brush that was used for the public option."

In order to reach consensus in the climate or health care debates, Segal said, "cherished components," must sometimes be left aside. "For example, within the Democratic caucus, there was a strong constituency for the public option in the same way many feel strongly about cap and trade."

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hopes Obama will similarly drop cap and trade from energy negotiations.

"I think what he's concluded is that cap and trade is a very heavy lift, particularly after all the capital they expended on health care," Thune said. "And the public option was one he was kind of willing to throw overboard to get the other elements that he wanted in his health care bill. And it may be that cap and trade faces the same thing -- I don't know, I hope so.

Cap-and-trade supporters in the Senate, meanwhile, dismissed the comparison.

"It might be a convenient comparison, but it's not one that I think works," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). "Policy-wise, the public option, as important as it was, was about 1 or 2 percent of the overall health care reform, in the sense of numbers of Americans it would touch. A price on carbon touches all of us, it's an important part of our energy policy; I think we need to implement it."

Senate Dems map floor strategy

As the White House prepares its push for an energy and climate bill, Senate Democrats will meet today to map out their path forward.

Democratic sponsors of Senate climate legislation are expected to make pitches for their bills as leadership decides which pieces to include in a package slated for floor debate in July.

Some of the options on the table include the Kerry-Lieberman bill, Bingaman's energy bill with a nationwide renewable energy standard; an alternative "cap and dividend" approach for pricing carbon emissions from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine); and Lugar's bill that promotes energy efficiency.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is also planning to press her colleagues to include a provision to accelerate offshore drilling revenue sharing for coastal states.

Landrieu said yesterday she will lead the effort to block any climate and energy bill that does not include a provision to accelerate offshore revenue sharing for coastal states so that it begins immediately instead of 2017.

"There will be no energy bill of any magnitude without recognizing the vital need for these Gulf Coast states to share appropriately, as do interior states, the revenues from drilling," Landrieu said in a statement. "Our people are on the front line with oil washing up to their knees, and this Congress basically keeps 100 percent of the money. Those days are over with."

In advance of the caucus meeting, a new coalition of renewable energy, energy efficiency and biofuels groups called on the Senate to quickly pass comprehensive energy legislation in order to provide long-term support for their industries.

"We urge that the Senate move quickly to consider legislation promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy generation, and biofuels, along with associated manufacturing opportunities," the groups wrote to senators yesterday. "Such a policy would add millions of American jobs and utilize our own domestic, clean, inexhaustible, and rapidly deployable resources."

The coalition includes the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Wind Energy Association, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, the Biomass Power Association, Growth Energy, the Energy Recovery Council, the Geothermal Energy Association, the National Hydropower Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Reporter Josh Voorhees contributed.

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