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Energy Bill Options Narrow for Democrats

Election-Year Pressures Produce Strategy Rift

Senate Democrats remain deeply divided over how or whether to debate energy and climate change legislation this month, with some suggesting Tuesday that the party should do little or nothing on the politically charged topic so close to the midterm elections.

Senate Democratic sources said the only thing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is likely to bring up during any potential energy debate next week is a narrow bill dealing with oil spill liability and possibly some modest provisions dealing with renewable energy and “green jobs.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Reid laid out a variety of options during Democrats’ regular Tuesday lunch, but that Democrats face a dilemma when it comes to deciding whether to bring up a bill that would create a cap-and-trade style system to limit greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.

“There’s an irony to it,” Carper said. “You’ve got a situation where some people won’t vote for a bill that doesn’t begin to address carbon and some people won’t vote for a bill which does address carbon even in a modest way.”

Carper added, “one option would be to do nothing, which I think is a very bad option.”

Carper indicated that Reid put cap-and-trade only for utilities on the table, as well as narrower measures that would deal with the Gulf of Mexico oil leak and renewable energy initiatives.

But another Democratic Senator said that since any form of cap-and-trade is dead for the year, Reid’s options were “more talk than action.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats have not been able to make any inroads with Republicans on broader climate issues, and they still lack centrist Democrats’ support for a measure that would cap greenhouse gases.

“There are not 60 votes for just about anything right now,” the aide said. “We don’t have enough time to seriously legislate on this issue.” The aide blamed the time constraints on the GOP’s continual efforts to delay or block most bills moving through the chamber.

However, Senate Democrats have a few must-pass issues to deal with before their scheduled recess begins Aug. 6. That includes passing a supplemental war spending bill and confirming Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. With those issues on tap, Democrats have just three or four days to devote to a climate debate this month.

Given the lack of support for the bill, even climate change champions have begun to warn that bringing a comprehensive bill to the floor, only to see it fail to garner even a bare majority, could be a serious setback to the cause. Instead, they have been arguing that the debate might be better-suited for later in the year, or even during a lame-duck session after the November election.

“I know there’s a certain awkwardness in a lame-duck session, but these are big and important issues regarding energy independence,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said.

Lieberman, who co-authored a major climate change measure with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), said electric company CEOs have urged the duo to give the debate more time and that they are concerned about plans to cap carbon emissions for utilities only.

“They want to work with us to see if they can negotiate an agreement on a utility-only bill, but as far as they’re concerned they can’t do that in 10 days,” Lieberman said. “So they pleaded for more time, and I think that’s something we ought to consider.”

Lieberman reminded reporters Tuesday that “we’re going to be here September, October, November, so there’s time for an energy bill later in the year.”

However, with Reid’s pushing to act on energy legislation within the next week or two, Democrats say they’re realizing that they could be in a political bind. Leaders fear all options will fail to overcome a filibuster, but only a few options present an opportunity for party unity. A nearly united Democratic caucus could more easily attack Republicans for opposition to any energy bill.

Some Democrats have argued that the only bill that can generate broad support is one that deals almost exclusively with the oil spill and a handful of noncontroversial measures dealing with green jobs and renewable energy programs.

Reid said Tuesday that he had yet to make a decision on which bill to bring up.

“We’re going to make a decision in the near future,” Reid said. “We’re going to have a caucus on Thursday where we’re going to talk about a number of things, two things, one of which is energy.”

He added, “So we’re really not at a point where I can determine what I think is best for the caucus and the country at this stage. … We’re still trying to find a Republican — or two, or three — to help us with energy. We haven’t given up on that yet.”

But some Members appeared annoyed that the caucus had not come to more certainty in their energy discussion Tuesday. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said the topic “was brought up at the eleventh hour — the last six minutes of the lunch.” Cantwell supports moving a broad comprehensive bill, particularly the one she co-authored with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Asked whether she supported doing a scaled-down measure in order to push the debate forward, Cantwell was glib: “I just support getting to cloture.”

But Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he wants Reid to bring up a bill sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and will not support anything that involves limits on carbon emissions.

“I would prefer an energy bill that doesn’t involve climate change and something that would be very close to what came out of the Energy Committee,” Nelson said.

Getting the two sides together on one bill is “going to be difficult,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. Stabenow added that she prefers an energy debate on “whatever we can get enough votes to do … [because] it’s so important for the economy.”

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