Senate Democrats believe they've found a surefire way to force Republicans to support a sweeping climate and energy bill that directly addresses greenhouse gas emissions.
Now all they need is the actual legislation.
Democrats admitted yesterday that they have yet to rally around any of the legislative proposals currently on the table but now believe they know how to use the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to secure the necessary Republican votes once they do.
According to a staff-written summary of yesterday's closed-door caucus meeting obtained by E&E Daily, senators discussed a legislative strategy "more akin to the financial regulatory legislation than of health care, with Democrats bringing to the floor an impenetrable package that Republicans could not roadblock."
Democratic senators declined to discuss the exact details of their strategy after emerging from the hourlong talks. But its basic thrust appears to be a plan to anchor the climate and energy effort to widely popular legislation that would overhaul offshore drilling regulations in the wake of the Gulf spill, and then dare Republicans to vote against it.
"We're going to challenge some of our Republican colleagues to do what I know they know is the right and necessary thing for America, and we're going to get 60 votes or more," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told reporters.
On the financial reform bill, Senate Democrats harnessed public outrage at big business to force Republicans to the table. Four Republicans joined all but two Democrats to pass the bill that is currently in conference with the House.
At the same time, there are likely very few GOP swing votes, meaning Democrats would still need to capitalize on what they say is a renewed sense of unity within their caucus to cobble together compromise legislation capable of appeasing the party's full spectrum.
In order to do so, they may employ a proposal Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) floated yesterday, which would create a special group made up of 10 or so Democrats who would hammer out a piece of compromise legislation and perhaps serve as de facto whips to keep their caucus in line when the bill reaches the floor. Democrats used such as group during the health care debate, which eventually passed with no Republican support.
A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to comment on the strategy, but Democrats were not shy about touting the oil spill response legislation as a key pillar of their energy plans.
"Whatever form it takes, we're going to move forward," Reid said directly after yesterday's meeting. "We agree we must deal with the catastrophe in the Gulf, we must create millions of new jobs, we must cut pollution, and we must strengthen our national security and energy independence."
Democrats have been attempting to tie the need for sweeping energy and climate legislation to the ongoing BP PLC oil leak since it began, but the new plan appears to go a step further. By including drilling safety reform in the bill, they hope to make the case that a vote against the package is a vote for BP and "Big Oil."
"It will be an opportunity for senators to vote for oil safety," Lieberman said.
But Republicans are unlikely to sit idly by and allow Democrats to execute their plan, and a number are already girding for what some see as nothing more than a political ploy.
"Our initiative, our imperative right now should be to provide the help and the assistance to those in the Gulf," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said earlier this week. "And if there is an effort that ties relief to the victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to an energy bill that simply does not stand a chance at passage, then we are not doing justice by those who have been harmed by the disaster."
Asked whether she would advocate passing an oil bill before an energy bill, Murkowski said, "Yep, definitely, yep."
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said yesterday that efforts to package oil spill response language with climate provisions would be a nonstarter regardless of public pressure to reform offshore drilling. "That's not going to work for me," he said.
That stance was echoed by conservative strategists and industry advocates off Capitol Hill.
"I don't think that will work," said Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Environment and Public Works Committee who now works for B&D Consulting, adding that "if they try to load it with other things, it could kill it."
"Everyone agrees that the oil spill is a tragedy," said Scott Segal, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani. "But if you try to make that rage bear too much legislative freight it may well be seen by the public as a cynical attempt to push an unrelated agenda."
Gang of 10?
After yesterday's afternoon meeting, nearly every Democrat who spoke to reporters stressed the newfound unity within their caucus to pass energy and climate legislation this year.
"As we said, we had a revival," said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). "There was this atmosphere of a lot of people coming together on the need now to move forward."
But while Democrats appeared to rally around the general idea of energy and climate legislation -- complete with what Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) vaguely called "polluter pays" language -- they failed to find consensus on the bill's details.
That could be where Schumer's commission comes in.
A number of lawmakers said that they would be open to the idea of creating a special panel of senators to recommend what should ultimately be in the final draft.
"I'm fine with that, I was one of the 10 on the health care bill," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). "I'm willing to try to do anything."
Schumer mentioned the idea near the end of the energy caucus yesterday, according to several Democrats, who cautioned that it was not something that had been finalized.
"I don't know that Senator Reid has embraced it or is going to move forward on it," said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Schumer declined to comment. "I don't talk about what happened in the caucus," he told reporters.
In 2008, a short-lived "Gang of 15" (later 16), composed of moderate Democrats from the Midwest, Rust Belt and West, launched out of dissatisfaction with a cap-and-trade bill that failed on the Senate floor (E&E Daily, Oct. 3, 2008).
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who also served in the group of 10 health care negotiators, said he would not rule out the possibility of a Democratic commission for energy and climate.
"I thought it was of value," Carper said of the health care panel. "I'd say that doing that again is not likely, but it was an interesting idea."
Reporter Alex Kaplun contributed.