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Road Ahead Is Still Murky for Climate Change

For all the uncertainty in the Senate these days over how and when to bring up a climate change bill, one thing remains almost certain: Democrats who want to regulate greenhouse gases don’t have the votes to do so.

What Democratic leaders believe they do have the votes for is a measure that would respond to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by tightening restrictions on offshore oil and gas drilling.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been moving forward with a collaborative process — including a chairmen’s meeting this week and a full caucus on energy reform next week — that almost seems designed to bring those idealistic, climate-change-crusading Democrats to the conclusion that they cannot win on the floor this year. The idea, Senate aides said, is to convince Democrats, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), that the way to go is to move a more targeted energy efficiency bill that also goes after oil spill culprits such as BP. Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) are the lead sponsors of a major climate change bill in the Senate.

Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) may have made that process harder Monday when he insinuated that Democratic leaders had already decided to pursue the smaller energy bill but would let Kerry and others offer their measures as mere amendments.

That may not sound like a problem, but as Kerry and other seasoned Senators know, it’s a lot harder to add something to a bill than it is to strip something out.

Kerry said Tuesday that he is convinced his measure will come to the floor on its own, not as an amendment.

“It’s not on the table,” Kerry said. “That’s not what we’re doing. That’s not in the leader’s plan. We’re going to start in the right place on this.”

But senior Democratic aides said Kerry may be too optimistic that his plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions has a fighting chance this year.

“A much criticized and, in some ways, [politically] toxic cap-and-trade discussion detracts from making you look like you’re on top” of the Gulf oil spill, said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

[IMGCAP(1)]Kerry’s proposal is not technically a “cap-and-trade” proposal where businesses could trade energy credits, but aides said the GOP line of attack would be the same, regardless. “Climate change is more easily messaged as a job killer,” said another aide, who noted Republicans successfully tagged a House climate change measure as “cap-and-tax” last year.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) previewed that line of attack Tuesday: “I think I can speak for virtually everybody in our Conference: We don’t think this is a great time to be socking a national energy tax to the American people.”

Democratic leaders have discussed politically viable options for having a debate without endangering vulnerable incumbents in a dicey election year. Those talks have included having any climate change bill offered as an amendment to a smaller Energy and Natural Resources package that aims to boost the use of renewable and alternative energy sources, among other things.

Other possibilities include setting up both the Kerry-Lieberman package and the energy bill for votes, with the expectation that the broader climate change measure will fall to a filibuster.

Another option that may be gaining traction since Schumer let the cat out of the bag on the amendment strategy is crafting a mashup of the least controversial pieces of the Kerry-Lieberman package and the more targeted energy bills.

Reid and Schumer on Tuesday sought to downplay the notion that they have already settled on a road map.

“Well, there’s been no decision made, at all, as to what we’re going to do,” Reid said, noting he is meeting with seven committee chairmen Thursday and will have a full Conference on energy policy June 17.

In any case, Democrats said they would seek to add tougher regulation of off-shore drilling, aides said.

The Democratic caucus is clearly fractured on the issue, which Kerry and Lieberman are sure to find out for themselves next Thursday.

“I think that, you know, given what’s happening in the Gulf, there needs to be some legislative response to some of the safety and regulatory approaches with respect to offshore drilling,” Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said. “I think that attached to the energy bill — which was bipartisan coming out of the Energy Committee — is the best thing to put on the floor and if those who have climate change legislation are ready and have 60 votes, they can offer it as an amendment.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Begich (D-
Alaska) demanded that any energy bill include language on climate change, but he said Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) resolution to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases could harm any climate change efforts.

“If that passes, I believe comprehensive energy proposals will just die off because people will feel like they’ve done what they needed to do, which is take EPA out of the equation,” Begich said.

President Barack Obama threatened to veto Murkowski’s proposal if it wins Senate passage, releasing a statement two days ahead of Thursday’s scheduled floor vote.

Democrats said the statement signaled a hardcore offensive that would spill over into the larger climate change debate, during which Reid will need both executive muscle and political cover to help win enough votes to clear a potential filibuster attempt.

Reid said Tuesday he believes he has the votes to retain the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

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