Reid Fuels Anxiety With Energy Debate

Posted July 14, 2010 at 6:31pm

With just a week and a half before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s planned energy debate, many Senators in the Democratic Conference are getting nervous that the Nevada Democrat is putting them in a politically perilous position for a bill that seems destined to be filibustered.

Senators and aides said they are concerned that with so little time before floor action, Reid has yet to settle on either the policy or the political strategy for the package.

After all, even Reid’s own communications staff has no details to give on a measure that the Majority Leader says he will bring to the floor the week of July 26, and Senators privately say they are similarly in the dark about what he has planned and how he will turn the politically dicey issue into a winner in a week’s time.

Reid has outlined four vague principles for the bill — dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, creating “green energy” jobs, reducing consumption and tackling pollution from power plants. But he has appeared to be leaning toward pushing a controversial provision that would limit and price carbon emissions for utilities only, on the as-yet-unproven belief that Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) might vote for it.

But for Democrats up for re-election this year, the issue ­— in any form — appears to be a loser. “There are a lot of Members who aren’t enthusiastic about having energy hang over the August recess like health care hung over last year’s recess,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Indeed, raucous town hall meetings in which Members were excoriated by conservative tea party activists for their support of a health care reform bill that had yet to be debated remain a fresh memory in many Senators’ minds. Last year’s July Fourth recess also proved difficult for House Democrats who voted for a far-reaching and controversial climate change bill that Republicans dubbed “a national energy tax.”

And one senior Senate GOP aide predicted that, “A July debate about the energy tax absolutely has the capability of re-creating the town hell experience that greeted Democrats over health care in 2009.”

Sources said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — who is a part of Reid’s leadership team but is also facing a stiff challenge from Republican Dino Rossi this year — and vulnerable incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) have expressed doubts about taking up the energy issue this year.

[IMGCAP(1)]One senior source said Murray’s concerns, which she conveyed at a recent White House meeting, were broader than just energy reform. The source said Murray simply wanted to ensure the entire Democratic agenda “was clear and focused and limited,” and that she is not necessarily opposed to an energy debate that meets that criteria.

A Lincoln spokeswoman said the Arkansan was also not necessarily opposed to an energy debate but “made clear to her colleagues that she does not support attaching any cap-and-trade proposal to any energy bill that the Senate considers because it will cost Arkansans jobs and put additional financial burden on hard-working Arkansas families.”

Democratic sources said a number of other Senators voiced concerns at Tuesday’s regular Democratic luncheon that the Conference should not try to take on big issues such as climate change this close to the midterm elections.

Democrats privately say they are concerned that an energy debate before August will create a situation in which they will take fire from the left and the right — with environmental activists complaining the bill does not go far enough and conservatives claiming the majority is overreaching. Plus, they argue, an energy debate will detract from the issues that are foremost on Americans’ minds: job creation and the economy.

To top off their concerns, Democrats say a bill with any kind of cap-and-trade element will never secure the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster by Members of both parties, and given the partisan atmosphere of the Senate, many suggested that even a relatively modest bill would not survive a filibuster.

Though Democrats said they did not know what Reid’s ultimate endgame is, some posited that he may be dangling a utility-only cap-and-trade system out there only to prove to its supporters that he can’t get the votes.

Moderate Sen. Mark Pryor said Tuesday that he might be willing to support a utility-only carbon cap, but that it is far from clear whether that idea can get the needed support.

“I think that we’ll have to wait and see what they can put together,” the Arkansas Democrat said. “My reading of the Senate is that it’s going to be hard to pass a cap-and-trade-type bill here and get 60 votes.”

Some Democratic sources said Reid has basically been put between a rock and a hard place and is trying to balance the desires of the majority of his caucus against the political needs of a few.

“There is a not insignificant swath of the caucus that wants to address the big pieces of the issue, including the climate change aspect,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said. Democrats estimated that 35 to 40 of the 58 Members of the Democratic Conference support bringing sweeping climate change to the floor. Reid, the aide said, “is being a good leader and balancing both.”

Another senior aide said Democrats hope to drown out the GOP message that the Democrats have failed on the economy by highlighting the job-creation benefits of a bill that is expected to include “green energy” jobs initiatives and provisions intended to get tough on BP for causing the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s not about the art of persuasion. It’s about the art of amplification,” the aide said. “The person who’s willing to scream the loudest and the longest is going to win this fight.”

The aide added that Reid hopes to craft the package in a way that draws support from business groups as well as liberal interests. “It will energize the base and a lot of the caucus wants it,” the aide said.

Reid, who is facing a tough re-election bid this year, said Wednesday that he does not believe an energy debate “imperils any Democrats” because he said it’s a “huge job creator.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow agreed, saying she has already seen benefits for the hard-hit Michigan economy from green jobs initiatives passed last year.

“Assuming it’s done in a way that is sensitive to manufacturing, [an energy debate] could be a big job creator,” the Michigan Democrat said.

Sen. Tom Carper is among those pushing hard for the utility-only compromise that would set up a market for carbon emissions.

“When we met with the president two weeks ago to talk about these issues, he said, ‘Aim high — not so high that you don’t hit something, but what we need to hit is a sweet spot,’ and I think our leader is trying to develop that sweet spot,” the Delaware Democrat said Tuesday.

Republicans say they are primed for the debate and ready to attack.

“It’s almost hard to believe the gifts Democrat leadership are giving to Republicans across the country,” the senior Republican aide said. “Not only are they forcing their Members and candidates to take a position on an energy tax just months before the election, they’re using their incompetency in the Gulf as a hook for the debate.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.