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Democratic Energy Builds for Energy Bill

President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) say that this time they are committed, really committed, to bringing some sort of clean energy bill to the floor this year.

But after months of speed bumps, false starts and promises, some are wondering, can they really get something done?

The new Democratic strategy seems clear enough: try to capitalize on the unprecedented oil spill disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico to jump-start the bill and put Republicans on the defensive. Democrats hope to either tar Republicans as tools of Big Oil as the slick continues to spread, or have another signature accomplishment knocked off Obama’s to-do list to go along with health care reform and a Wall Street overhaul.

With the political fallout over the BP oil spill growing by the day, the president has injected a new sense of urgency into passing energy legislation in 2010. Obama has framed the disaster as a “wake-up call” on the need for action on climate change, and during a Carnegie Mellon speech last week, he significantly upped the ante by vowing to become more personally involved in helping to pass legislation this year.

“The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. I will work with anyone to get this done — and we will get it done,” Obama said.

White House officials readily admit they are trying to channel the outrage over the Gulf spill into momentum for energy reform. “I think it adds to the urgency of getting something done on energy,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week.

And even though the current Senate proposal lacks GOP support, Reid is preparing to press ahead anyway: On Thursday, he called on his committee chairmen to develop recommendations for climate change legislation that he hopes to bring up “later this summer.” Reid’s letter, however, did not mention the word “climate,” calling it a “clean energy” bill instead.

A White House aide confirmed the expedited timeline for moving the climate change bill, saying it is next in line after the House and Senate complete work on Wall Street reform in early July.

“We don’t have the votes yet, but we intend to work with Leader Reid and Senators Kerry and Lieberman to find them,” the aide said.

A Senate Democratic aide working on the climate overhaul said Obama’s ratcheting up of comments, along with Reid’s new push to get a bill to the floor, have given the issue fresh momentum.

“He’s really doubling down on this,” the aide said of Obama. “His statements have gone from ‘We need to get this done’ to ‘We need to get this done this year’ to ‘We need to get this done now and I’m going to get the votes for it.'”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has put together a broad package with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), met before the Memorial Day recess with White House liaison Phil Schiliro to map out a strategy, the Senate aide said.

“We think that they are really committed, and we think this is the real deal.”

What remains unclear is whether Congressional Democrats can successfully engage Republicans on the issue, and whether a truly comprehensive package has legs or whether Democrats will have to settle for a dramatically scaled-down version to secure GOP support. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) helped develop the Kerry-Lieberman bill but backed out just before it was introduced after Reid pledged to bring immigration reform to the floor first. Graham has said that the oil spill in some ways makes passing a bill more challenging because Senators are concerned about how to deal with its offshore drilling provisions. But Democratic aides said they still hope Graham and a few other Republicans will ultimately support a bill if it makes it to the floor.

“It is time that the Republicans decided to work with us to address the many issues confronting the nation, rather than continue their record of obstruction and delay,” said Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid.

A Senate GOP leadership aide said Republicans would be willing to support a clean energy proposal as long as it didn’t include a cap-and-trade provision — a centerpiece of the House Democratic version of energy reform.

“If Democrats want to have a comprehensive energy plan that includes reducing our reliance on oil, but recognizing that we still need some in the shorter term and increasing our reliance on alternative fuels, Republicans would be willing to support that. But we can’t go along with making energy more expensive in the middle of a recession — and that’s what they seem intent on doing with all these energy proposals,” the aide said.

With Reid setting up a meeting of his chairmen this week and a full caucus meeting the following week, energy appears to have officially leapfrogged immigration reform — now seemingly dead.

Reid has given pro-immigration-reform groups a few weeks to find Republican backers, but energy bill backers say it appears he is ready to pivot.

“That’s exactly the clarity that people were looking for,” said the Senate aide pushing the energy bill. “This is the train that’s moving and this is what we are going to be doing this summer. … We didn’t want to pit important legislative goals against each other, but the immigration bill isn’t complete yet and we have a complete package that’s ready to go. … We’re going to fight like hell for this.”

House Democratic aides aren’t particularly optimistic that the Senate will be able to get its act together.

“It’s better late than never,” one leadership aide said.

“If they can take advantage of the current climate and get some sort of compromise bill and wrap it around oil spill response legislation, that would be tremendous,” another aide said.

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