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Democrats Still Stuck Over Climate Policy

Updated: June 17, 5:04 p.m.

Senate Democrats emerged from a special caucus on energy and climate change no closer to resolving how, when or even if they will address the politically dicey issue this year.

A few things were clear: They will continue the internal policy debate at another special caucus next week, and there is still little appetite among Democratic centrists and lawmakers from states reliant on the energy industry for a major policy debate over capping greenhouse gases.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was careful to talk in broad generalities about the Democrats’ plans to have some sort of energy debate next month. In fact, the Nevada Democrat did not even fully commit to bringing up such a bill next month, saying Republican “obstruction” could be a factor in preventing him from doing so.

But Reid gave a nod toward the fractures in his own caucus over whether to limit greenhouse gas emissions or to provide less radical incentives for using renewable and alternative fuels.

“There are many strong passions and arguments about the best way to achieve these goals, and I’m always focused on what is possible,” Reid said.

He added, however, that whatever Democrats decide to do, they need Republican votes to achieve a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

“We need to write a bill that will pass in the Senate,” Reid said. “We need the cooperation of brave Republicans who want to do what’s right for tomorrow.”

Reid said that whatever Democrats do, any energy legislation will include a section designed to address offshore oil drilling and the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The caucus heard presentations from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) on his bill to boost alternative and renewable fuels, from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) on their broad climate change measure to cap carbon emissions, from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) about her bipartisan climate change measure, and from Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on the need for a broad-based approach to the climate issue.

Kerry said the Senate has had a history of passing energy bills that do little to create jobs or clean up the environment, and he said the only way to change that is to put a price on carbon emissions.

“If we do another energy bill like the 10 energy bills of the last years, we will have one-tenth the number of jobs created and one-tenth the amount of carbon reduced. That’s why it’s urgent to try to do it,” Kerry said.

But many of his colleagues appeared to disagree.

“There’s not a unanimous consensus on the need to price carbon,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said. “There’s a unanimous consensus on the need to move us to energy independence.”

Sen. Mark Pryor said he did not see a filibuster-proof majority for Kerry’s or the other broad climate change proposals.

“I think it’s hard to get 60 votes on a climate change bill,” the Arkansas Democrat said. “My sense is, it’s easier to get there on just a straight energy bill, like the one that came out of the Energy Committee. … One fact of life around here is, you can get every Democrat, you still need one Republican. And I’m not sure who that is just yet.”

But even if Democrats are able to craft legislation that has enough crossover appeal with Republicans to make it on to the floor, Lieberman said it would not come together overnight, and he sought to manage expectations of a possible timeline.

“For all those people who are following this, I want to stress this is going to be a long journey,” he said, suggesting action could potentially spill over into a lame-duck session. “This is going to keep us busy for the rest of the year.”

Lieberman and a host of Members met before the caucus gathering with executives from General Electric, Honeywell and Dow Corning, who charged that an energy reform bill must include carbon pricing.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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