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Talk of Climate Change Bill Dominates After Speech

Senate Democrats who have been pushing to take up climate change legislation this year hailed President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday on the BP oil spill, even as they grapple with how to proceed on the issue.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), the lead sponsors of sweeping climate change legislation released last month, declared Obama’s address from the Oval Office “a historic leadership moment.”

“There can be no doubt that the president is rolling up his sleeves to ensure we establish a market mechanism to tackle carbon pollution, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year, strengthen energy independence and improve the quality of the air we breathe,” the two said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is struggling to rally his diverse caucus behind a single energy proposal, said Obama “presented a path to energy independence in his speech tonight that strengthens our economy and protects our environment.”

The Nevada Democrat used Tuesday night’s address to pressure Republicans to join his efforts. “This legislation can only be passed if Republicans decide to work with us and demonstrate that they share our serious commitment to building a 21st-century energy strategy for America,” he said.

But House Minority Leader John Boehner slammed the administration’s response to the leak, saying, “Even now, nearly two months after disaster first struck, the federal response remains inadequate and disorganized.” The Ohio Republican added, “President Obama should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses,” referring to Democrats’ efforts at climate and energy legislation.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) suggested any climate change proposal should include drilling off his state’s coast and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Developing these areas should be part of a comprehensive national energy policy, as Alaska continues its role as the nation’s energy storehouse,” he said. “Congress needs to act on comprehensive energy legislation this year.”

Begich’s statement suggests that Reid and other stakeholders still have a lot of coalition-building to do on climate change. While moderates such as Begich and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) have maintained that offshore drilling must be included in any climate change proposal, the Senate’s liberal brass has said it should be left off the table.

Democrats also piled on their criticism of BP, the oil giant whose Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, killing 11 workers.

“When he meets with BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, President Obama must ensure that BP commits to establishing a special account — administered by an independent trustee — that will be used to pay economic damages and cleanup costs,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement. “Taxpayers should not be on the hook for BP’s irresponsibility.”

Fifty-five Senate Democrats recently sent a letter to Hayward calling on BP to create a $20 billion account to fund Gulf Coast recovery costs. Hayward is scheduled to meet with Obama on Wednesday and will likely be grilled by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee when he appears at a hearing Thursday.

Landrieu applauded the president for demanding improvements to the claims process, saying in a statement, “We must work to hold BP accountable for every penny of damages they have caused individuals, businesses, communities and the environment.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) touted a series of hearings with BP officials, which she said was “uncovering the truth about the oil industry’s disregard for safety and appalling lack of response plans.” She echoed Obama’s call for Congress to finish its work on a climate change bill.

“We must complete this legislation and invest in a clean energy future founded on American innovation and the skill of our workers, and we must harness the power of the sun, wind, soil and our natural resources to fuel our future,” Pelosi said.

The House narrowly passed a climate change bill last June that included a cap-and-trade provision to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But the proposal has stalled in the Senate, much to the dismay of moderate Democrats in the House. Still, those same moderates are wary of considering Kerry and Lieberman’s broad energy bill this close to an election.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) threw cold water on energy reform, which Republicans have charged would add costly taxes on businesses and cut job growth nationwide.

“The president should spend more time focusing on cleaning up and containing the oil spill and less time trying to pass a national energy tax that will drive jobs overseas looking for cheap energy,” he said. “After that, Congress can enact legislation to help electrify half our cars and trucks, which is the single best way to reduce our dependence on oil.”

Likewise, former House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, who is running for an open Senate seat in Missouri, said he “was stunned to hear the president use this catastrophe as an opportunity to push for his job-killing national energy tax.” Republicans spent Tuesday pre-emptively hammering Obama for linking the spill to climate change legislation.

“Now is not the time for political gamesmanship; it’s a time for action,” Blunt said.

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