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Road Map: Obama May Muddy Democrats’ Energy Plans

Everyone seems to be ganging up on BP these days, and Senate Democrats are no exception.

But rather than letting Senators channel their anger on the company largely responsible for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama may just muddy the Senate Democrats’ message by asking them to add a massive climate change overhaul to the energy debate they have planned for next month.

Though Members’ appetite for capping carbon emissions has waned as the November elections near, Obama appears ready to use his bully pulpit tonight to push for a broader climate debate than many Senators want. The president is set to deliver a prime-time, televised address to the nation on the state of the leak, the government’s response so far and prescriptions for preventing similar environmental disasters in the future.

Though Obama is not expected to get into specifics on the legislation he’d like to see, Senate Democrats said he has been quietly laying the groundwork on Capitol Hill for a debate that could include capping greenhouse gas emissions — a fight that not only divides the parties, but also Democrats from industrial and coal-producing states.

Still, Obama’s pollster last week gave briefings to key leadership and committee staffers, as well as Democratic chiefs of staff, on the potential wonders a climate change bill could do for the party’s electoral prospects this fall. Pollsters concluded that Americans strongly favor climate change legislation and want to see Congress do more than just seek token revenge against BP.

But those rosy prognostications from Benenson Strategy Group have not been well-received by their intended audience. In fact, Senate Democrats had been gravitating recently toward confining their legislative efforts to the oil spill itself — accountability for BP, cleaning up the Gulf, tighter offshore oil regulations, and possibly a smattering of “clean energy” initiatives, one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

“There’s a feeling among Members in the caucus that [climate change] is an important issue and like health care, we’re on the right side of it, but this is a big fight, and it may not be the right thing to do before an election,” this aide said.

Plus, Senate Democrats saw the political blood in the water after their House counterparts passed a climate change bill that Republicans dubbed a “new energy tax.”

And Senate Republicans laughed at the notion that Democrats could get an electoral boost out of pursuing the issue this year.

“Bring it on. The White House solution to the oil spill is to push through a national gas tax when we’ve got 10 percent unemployment — genius,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “This is why candidates like Rep. [Stephanie] Herseth Sandlin [D-S.D.] are down 12 percent and [Sen.] Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] is fighting for her political life.”

The Democratic Conference is already planning to talk energy and climate change in a special caucus on Thursday. The choices are many, but without exception, Senate Democratic aides said the roughest road would be to choose a path that includes any version of controversial cap-and-trade legislation. After all, Senate Democratic leaders have not mapped out an overarching strategy for getting a climate change bill done this year.

“Senators will need to decide whether they want to climb the mountain of conflict,” another senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Chances are, aides said, that Democrats will find a way around that mountain, but it’s unlikely any of their other options will be without conflict.

The special caucus will likely expose more fractures among Democrats on energy policy. The caucus is set to hear three competing proposals — a broad climate change bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), another sweeping climate measure from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and a renewable and alternative energy bill from the Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

“Two things are certain: Leader Reid has already committed the Senate to addressing the nation’s energy challenges in the month of July, and no matter what form that legislation takes, it most certainly will include items that address the Gulf disaster,” a Senate Democratic aide said.

The other thing that’s certain: Democrats have a long way to go to securing a filibuster-proof 60 votes for anything they do. Republicans have been reluctant to sign on to Democratic-sponsored climate measures. And while both Bingaman and Cantwell can boast some limited bipartisan support for their initiatives, the policy proposals relating to the Gulf oil leak have yet to be vetted with Republicans, who have been criticizing the Obama administration’s response to the spill more than they have that of BP.

Still, Democrats are finding that beating up on BP is just too irresistible. Both Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) demanded this weekend that BP set up a $20 billion escrow account to pay for claims related to the disaster.

“We’re going to send the tab to BP,” Reid said on the floor Monday. “In past disasters, we’ve seen other oil companies spend millions on lawsuits and public relations campaigns all designed not to compensate the businesses and families they hurt, but to improve their profits. Our message to BP is as simple as this: If you drill and you spill, we’re going to make sure you pay the bill.”

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