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Energy Reform Limps Ahead

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on Tuesday said he will likely skip a subcommittee markup on controversial cap-and-trade legislation, but added he still sees enough progress following a Tuesday meeting with President Barack Obama to get a climate change bill out of his committee this month.

“It’s not stalled,” Waxman said, adding that negotiations are continuing around the clock. “I am still holding firm on my deadline of getting a bill out of committee by the end of May.”

Waxman and other Democrats emerged from the White House meeting saying they were encouraged by the president’s commitment to energy reform and his willingness to let the Energy and Commerce Committee try to hash out a compromise.

But House Democrats have yet to reach a deal on key aspects of the far-reaching package, including credits to affected industries, a timetable for reaching reductions in carbon emissions and the specifics of a new mandate for renewable electricity. And Waxman has come under fire from a group of Democrats and Republicans, led by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), who are dismissing the cap-and-trade idea and proposing instead a plan to fund alternative energy sources by tapping offshore oil and gas reserves.

Energy and Commerce Democrats who attended Tuesday’s White House meeting said Obama stayed out of the weeds and largely above the fray.

Obama, according to the Members, tried to impress on them the importance of making the most of the “moment” and forging a deal. Obama exhorted lawmakers to not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good,” in a clear message to more liberal panel members who are insisting on legislation that includes the controversial cap-and-trade language. The divisive initiative would set an emissions cap but allow industries to trade rights to pollute.

But in a warning to moderates, Obama also urged against pressing for a toothless package.

“To me it was an admonition to both sides that while we need to be flexible, we want a bill that moves us down the path of addressing these concerns,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said.

The president, who has made cap-and-trade one of his top priorities, acknowledged that the debate presents political perils, especially considering that unemployment rates are expected to peak around the time of the 2010 midterm elections, according to Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). Butterfield said the president tried to reassure Members that they could deflect political attacks by demonstrating leadership on the issue.

Eager to show a glimmer of progress, Democrats announced an agreement to add a “cash for clunkers” sweetener to the bill sought by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and others. It would give $3,500 to $4,500 to buyers of new cars and trucks who destroy vehicles that get fewer miles per gallon.

Waxman also said he is trying to stick to his carbon emissions targets, which include a 20 percent cut by 2020.

“They’re at the heart of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “The whole thing works when you’ve got clear targets and a strong timetable.”

Waxman said the bill would likely head straight to the full committee because there won’t be time later this week to hold a subcommittee markup.

Doyle said the decision to skip the subcommittee shouldn’t sour its members against the final package, “as long as we have final agreements.” But he also warned that Waxman could face trouble if he uses the tactic as an end around moderates. “If we still don’t have agreements and he tries to take it up to full committee, that may be a different story,” he said.

But Doyle insisted that a deal was within reach: “Henry just has some decisions to make. We’ve reached a point where everybody has their cards out on the table.”

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who represents a coal district and has been pushing for credits for utilities and a slower initial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, also said significant progress had been made. He said Members are putting in 15-hour days, even on weekends, to get a deal done.

“We hope to have our work concluded in the not-too-distant future,” Boucher said.

Boucher said he stressed to Obama the need for regional balance, noting that some areas of the country get nearly all of their electricity from coal and would be subject to significant price hikes unless accommodations are made. He also has stressed the importance of getting broad support from industry.

Obama, Boucher said, gave the lawmakers leeway to reach a consensus that reflects the regional differences on energy production. Obama also said he hoped to use the bill that emerges as a template for getting through the Senate, Boucher said.

While Energy and Commerce Democrats were huddling with the president, a bipartisan bloc of Members was announcing an alternative energy vision that relies on tapping offshore oil and gas reserves to fund alternative energy, nuclear power and other initiatives to promote energy independence.

Led by Abercrombie and Murphy, the plan is an offshoot of last year’s effort by Abercrombie and former Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) to promote offshore drilling. That effort ultimately helped force Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to abandon efforts to extend the offshore drilling ban last year.

Abercrombie ripped the cap-and-trade talks as “stalled” and said that’s why Obama had to step in. He called cap-and-trade “virtually unexplainable, and when it does get explained, nobody wants to do it. Can you explain it? Can you explain it to your mom?”

Asked if the Abercrombie bill would distract moderates, Doyle said the panel “is focused on this bill. This is the hand we’re dealt, this is the hand we’re playing. We’re not looking at other people’s bills.”

Moments later, Abercrombie interrupted the press scrum around Doyle to offer an emphatic thumbs-down.

“Tell me how you really feel, Neil,” Doyle joked.

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