Road Map: Climate Change Forecast Dark

Posted July 12, 2010 at 6:31pm

By the end of this week, a broad climate change bill could officially be dead in the Senate.

Of course, that should come as no surprise to people following the climate change debate and the distinct lack of enthusiasm Senate Democrats have had for the issue in an election year in which they’re being hammered for government overreaches.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appears to be reading the tea leaves and is seeing that nothing that puts limits or prices on greenhouse gas emissions will pass the filibuster-proof test in his chamber.

Of course, he still has to sell that idea to his hard-core climate change colleagues, such as Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), who, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), has spent the better part of the past year building coalitions with industry and environmentalists on a far-reaching measure.

Trying to stave off complete defeat, Kerry has been working hard to narrow his plan for a cap on carbon emissions to utilities only, considering Senate leaders and President Barack Obama essentially told him at a June 29 White House meeting that his proposal for an economy-wide limit was far too ambitious this year.

Because of Kerry’s effort and uncertainty surrounding the Senate Democratic Conference’s reaction to it, Democratic aides cautioned that a utility-only cap on greenhouse gases is not completely off the table. However, such a limit has not made the short list of proposals that Reid’s staff has been considering for action on the floor.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid would be making a final decision this week on which direction the Senate energy debate will take, after the Majority Leader consults all the chairmen with jurisdiction on the issue. Those chairmen are Kerry, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

However, Reid is unlikely to hold another Conference-wide discussion, given the crux for Reid right now will be in “convincing the principals to get in line,” while the rank and file who have aligned themselves with one or more chairmen will likely follow their designated leaders on how to proceed, another senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Reid and Democratic leaders have been zeroing in on an energy debate that would be based on a Bingaman measure that would be coupled with provisions intended to get tough on BP for causing the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill. That measure, like Bingaman’s bill, would likely include provisions requiring electric utilities to use a set amount of renewable or alternative energy as well as suggested improvements to the nation’s electricity grid.

But the key for Democratic leaders is setting up a debate in which they can potentially beat up on Republicans for blocking provisions intended to make sure BP and other responsible companies do not get out of paying the billions of dollars necessary to clean up the Gulf and to mitigate the economic devastation of the spill. Of course, if GOP opposition is not forthcoming — an unlikely event — Democrats would want to take credit for passage of provisions eliminating oil company liability caps and instituting tougher regulation of offshore drilling, among other things.

The hope is that by sidestepping a thorny debate on carbon emissions, Democrats can persuade a handful of Senate Republicans to let them at least begin debate on the bill. In anticipation of a potentially long debate, Reid has put Senators on notice that they should cancel any plans for the week of Aug. 9, given he may keep the chamber in session for an extra week to finish up any energy bill. The Senate is scheduled to adjourn for the August recess on Aug. 6.

House Democrats cleared a far-reaching climate change bill a year ago, but it’s not clear if that same package, which included a controversial cap-and-trade provision, could pass today. And even if Senate Democrats are able to put together a narrower energy bill in the coming weeks, there’s no guarantee that the House would accept it or that the two chambers could come to a meeting of the minds on the issue.

But cross-Dome politics notwithstanding, Senate Republicans have indicated that any energy debate in their chamber is likely to incite their ire. Many have already registered strong objections to eliminating oil company liability caps, and the bill’s price tag, along with the electricity standards, are likely to scare off even more. What’s more, there are more than a handful of Democrats who will be skeptical of the bill, making it difficult at best for Reid to cobble together a coalition of 60 votes to beat back a near-certain filibuster attempt.

Along with the oil spill language, sources said Reid’s office has been considering “green buildings” and “green” consumer products initiatives, incentives for electric cars, and the elimination of oil and gas subsidies.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said any energy bill might also attempt to satisfy perennial complainers, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), by seeking to make sure that government programs intended for the victims of Hurricane Katrina can also be used for oil spill relief. East Coast grumblers concerned about weather patterns transferring oil to the Atlantic Ocean also will likely see some provisions addressing that potentiality.