Reid’s Decision on Energy Vote Pleases Almost No One

Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:33pm

More than a few Senate Democrats are unhappy with how Majority Leader Harry Reid handled his announcement that the chamber would not take up a climate change bill as planned this month, and they say they’re not giving up on pushing for a cap on greenhouse emissions this year.

One Democratic Senator grumbled that the Nevada Democrat did not allow for any discussion during Thursday’s caucus, but he simply told Members that he was going to bring up a narrowly focused oil spill liability bill instead of the broad climate change debate the vast majority of the 59-Member caucus was looking for.

This Senator said Reid tried to tamp down the anger over his decision by saying, “I’m in the unenviable position of making a decision that everybody is going to hate.”

“This is not an energy bill,” the Senator added, noting supporters would continue to work over the August break to further engage the White House, industry groups, environmentalists and Republicans on a comprehensive climate measure.

Sen. Jeff Merkley put out a sharply worded statement Thursday calling Reid’s decision “an enormous disappointment and a huge missed opportunity.”

Though he did not use Reid’s name in the release, the Oregon Democrat parroted some of Reid’s rationale for pursuing the narrower bill in his criticism.

“Some believe that there is not enough time in the legislative calendar to do the hard work it would take to meet this challenge,” Merkley said of reducing greenhouse gas pollution. “I say that rebuilding our economy and ending America’s most dangerous vulnerability are too important not to make the time.”

A few Senators also said they were unmoved by Reid’s statement that he came to the decision after consulting President Barack Obama. Many Democrats still blame the president for fumbling the health care debate last year, and they do not necessarily trust the president’s judgment on these issues.

Some liberals had argued that because Republicans were likely to filibuster any energy bill, whether it was modest or ambitious, Democrats should force them to filibuster a climate bill. But more moderate Democrats, along with some liberals up for re-election, said they feared a repeat of last August, when tea party-inspired protesters showed up at Member town halls to heckle Democrats over their support for health care. The same dynamic could have happened over energy if the Senate pursued cap-and-trade for carbon emissions, they claimed in private meetings.

“Some people might be saying, ‘Whew, we dodged a bullet here,’ but there are 45 others who are very disappointed,” the anonymous Senator said.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid “made the smartest political decision he could have made” by choosing a narrow bill that essentially satisfied no one. After all, some moderates had been pushing Reid to abandon greenhouse gas limits and simply take up a bill by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that aimed to increase renewable and alternative energy sources. The aide pointed out that those provisions have been prized by liberals who see them as the sweeteners needed to make sure moderates and Republicans end up supporting a cap on carbon in the future.

Plus, the aide said that doing a carbon cap in the politically charged environment of this midterm election year would have driven more Democrats away from a comprehensive climate change measure. “That hurts the cause and the movement more than not having the vote right now,” the aide said. “It’s not progress to just have the vote and not have strong numbers” in support.

Though he had a deeply divided caucus, Reid chiefly blamed Republicans for refusing to negotiate with Democrats on climate change and, in some cases — such as with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — walking away from the table days before Graham and Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) planned to unveil their bipartisan bill. Reid noted that he needs 60 votes to bring up any climate change measure. He expressed confidence that he would be able to secure some GOP votes for the narrow oil spill bill, but several Democratic sources said he may have overstated his abilities.

Still, some liberals appeared to be cutting Reid some slack.

“I am disappointed that because of Republican obstructionism and the need to get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, the Senate has not been able to go as far as it should in transforming our energy system,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement. “While the proposed bill offered by Majority Leader Reid contains important provisions, it goes nowhere near far enough.” Sanders caucuses with Democrats.

Still, liberals vowed to keep fighting for a climate change bill this year.

Kerry told reporters Thursday that he would continue working to find 60 votes for his and Lieberman’s bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s possible to get there,” Kerry said.