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Climate Bill Still in Deep Freeze

President Barack Obama is trying to turn the oil crisis into a game-changer for comprehensive climate legislation, but with the players and their positions largely the same, few believe he will reach the goal line this year.

Obama went into full woo-mode Wednesday after his Tuesday night address to the nation, meeting with moderate Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and inviting a bipartisan group of Senators to the White House next week for a high-stakes powwow to jump-start the issue, which has languished in the Senate in the year since the House passed its sweeping cap-and-trade climate bill.

Moderates in both parties said that an energy bill of some sort was a real possibility, but a cap on carbon emissions or a new carbon tax probably won’t be in the mix.

Brown said after the meeting with the president that he wasn’t interested in backing a national energy tax or a cap-and-trade proposal, “but I am very excited about working with him in a bipartisan manner to come up with a comprehensive energy plan to address a whole host of issues — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, geothermal, conservation, incentivizing businesses.”

Brown said any effort will have to protect jobs.

“I conveyed to him there’s no interest right now in additional taxation to the businesses and individuals throughout the country, but there is an appetite and a recognition that people want to conserve, they want to get off the dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

Brown’s comments, and similar ones from Republicans such as Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.) and George LeMieux (Fla.), suggest there is a chance for some kind of an energy bill, but one that will likely be far less ambitious than the comprehensive carbon-capping plan being pushed by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.).

“I don’t think it moved the discussion that much,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, who predicted the administration will quickly back off the idea of a comprehensive climate bill.

“At the end of the day, my guess is they won’t push it that hard,” the Arkansas Democrat said. “I think the president wants it. … I just don’t think there’s 60 votes to do that, even with the oil spill.”

Another moderate Democrat, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, said he did not interpret Obama’s comments as an endorsement of the House-passed cap-and-trade idea.

“His call to action may not have been about any specific piece of legislation. … I accepted it more in the spirit of, ‘We have to do something,'” said Nelson, who called anything resembling cap-and-trade, which he opposes, “implausible” in the current political environment.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also was cool to the idea of cap-and-trade, responding Wednesday to a question about whether it was off the table, by saying, “Those are words that I don’t use. I don’t think any of my Democrats use it.” Reid said he was prepared to “take a look at” some type of alternative involving carbon pricing.

But Kerry said Obama’s comments in support of the House bill would make it easier to include a climate proposal in any energy legislation the Senate considers before the election.

“He specifically mentioned the House bill, and he specifically mentioned that we have to complete the work,” Kerry said. “He talked about a comprehensive bill. Everybody knows what that means.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a proponent of expanded drilling who opposes cap-and-trade, said she remained optimistic that the Senate could act on a broad energy bill this year, adding that the oil spill was lending a sense of urgency.

“It’s going to be very difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” Landrieu said. “Big events like this move people, move the public, and when the public moves, their leaders move.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another key moderate, said Obama’s chances of passing a comprehensive bill would improve if he backed legislation she introduced with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to return the bulk of any revenue to taxpayers and protect the low- and middle-class from higher costs.

“I think it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to depend on whether the president really pushes the way he did on health care or whether he mentions it once and goes on to other issues,” Collins said.

Also on Wednesday, Senate Democrats brought in political consultant Drew Westen, who specializes in the psychology of politics, to offer the caucus tips about the most effective way to discuss the oil spill and energy politics. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said Westen spoke about “the best way to make a point” about the situation in the Gulf. Democrats will meet again this afternoon to begin charting a path forward on energy legislation in light of the spill and continued disagreement within their own ranks.

Bingaman, Kerry and Cantwell will make presentations to the caucus today about aspects of energy legislation they are championing, Reid said.

In the coming weeks, Reid will have to determine whether to make an attempt to pass the Kerry-Lieberman climate proposal or avoid the contentious climate issue by instead bringing up a Bingaman proposal that promotes alternative energy, in part by instituting a renewable electricity standard. That bill also would open up new areas of the Gulf to drilling and make it easier to site electricity transmission lines.

Bingaman’s bill, which drew bipartisan support in committee, is emerging as the most likely base proposal. While that would be an easier election-year lift, it would not go as far to assuage the White House, liberals and environmental groups eager for action on climate change before the elections.

Still, moderate Democrats are eyeing Bingaman’s bill as the best path forward.

“My view on this, just being practical, if you’re going to bring an energy bill out, that’s probably the one you ought to start with,” Pryor said. “And hey, if you have the votes to tack on cap-and-trade to it, great.”

The Majority Leader, who has given committee chairmen until the July 4 recess to ready components of an energy bill, said he would make a decision about whether to bring an energy bill to the floor in July after today’s caucus and next week’s White House visit.

“We’ll see,” he said.

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