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Democrats Lethargic About New Energy Bill

The Senate’s upcoming debate on a tightly focused energy bill is suffering from a severe lack of enthusiasm from the very Democrats it was supposed to inspire.

Democratic leaders had hoped that, at the very least, a trimmed-down measure focused on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give their rank-and-file Members a red-meat issue to throw at their GOP opponents if Republicans try to block the bill as expected.

But instead of readying talking points accusing Republicans of protecting BP and other Big Oil companies, Democrats are approaching the debate with some ambivalence.

“I don’t know that there’s a lot of excitement about it, but at the end of the day, we need to be realists, and at the end of the day, we have to decide whether it’s better to get something done or nothing done,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who had wanted Reid to pursue a broad climate change measure like the one introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.).

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who had favored a more limited approach pushed by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), said the lack of excitement for Reid’s even narrower bill is understandable.

“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people had their hopes pinned on one bill or the other, and what Sen. Reid’s trying to do is get something done on energy but also address the oil spill,” Pryor said. Pryor added that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not ruled out doing either the Bingaman or Kerry-
Lieberman measure later this year. “You know, he’s not making any pretense that this is comprehensive energy legislation,” Pryor said.

Even some key Democrats appear poised to oppose a bill aimed at their interests. Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose state has been perhaps most affected by the BP oil spill, said she is unlikely to support an increase in oil company liability caps without provisions that boost the amount of money her state gets in oil drilling revenue sharing.

“It’s very unlikely that I can vote for anything relating to the oil spill without making sure that the Gulf Coast is adequately compensated,” the Louisiana Democrat said.

Other Democrats are expected to balk at the liability language as well, a situation that could make it difficult for members of the majority to use the measure as an election-year bludgeon against Republicans, as they had hoped to do.

Even Reid seems to have lost interest in the bill he introduced with little fanfare Tuesday.

When asked how he would make sure the energy debate actually occurred given that there are only 10 days left before the chamber is set to adjourn for the August recess, Reid began listing a litany of other priorities the Senate also needs to get done.

“We hope to be able to complete a number of things here,” Reid said. “We’re going to work on small business. … We’re going to try to finish that. We’re also going to work on food safety, and we’d like to do something on child nutrition. I’m going to try to do that. I’m told that that could be bipartisan. And we’re going to energy and we’re going to do” the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley clarified that Reid is likely to bring up the oil spill bill after the small-business debate this week. Reid said he is trying to finish that measure today or Thursday. Manley indicated the timeline could allow Reid to set up a vote on the oil spill bill for Monday.

Manley said Democrats’ blasé attitude toward the energy bill is due to their frustration with Republican obstruction of a far-reaching measure.

“I understand their concerns. We wish we could have done a more comprehensive bill, but in light of Republican stalling tactics and a complete and utter lack of cooperation from them, Sen. Reid thinks this bill has the best chance of getting out of the Senate,” Manley said.

Some supporters of Bingaman’s bill have disagreed, saying his renewable electricity standard would have garnered the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster, and they have noted that it was supported by Republicans on the Energy panel.

However, it’s unclear whether Kerry-Lieberman supporters on the Democratic side would have voted to pass the Bingaman bill, even though they may support most of its provisions. Advocates for a climate change bill have argued that passing Bingaman’s legislation without a cap on greenhouse gases would have undercut the ability to pass a cap-and-trade system in the future.

Though Republican sources are unsure whether they will have a united caucus to filibuster the oil spill bill, GOP leaders have certainly been laying the groundwork for such an outcome by introducing an alternative that includes more modest oil spill liability caps and giving speeches decrying Reid’s measure before it was even introduced.

“It’s being proposed in a way that has become all too familiar here,” Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said on the floor. “It’s being written in secret, offered at the last minute. There will be time for little debate. We have one or two days at most to work on this bill, given the need to consider the president’s nomination of Ms. Kagan. And apparently, there will be no amendments. So, last minute, written in secret, little debate and no amendments on a bill that addresses a big issue. That sounds a lot like what happened at Christmas with the health care bill.”

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