Energy debate grows divisive

Centrist Democratic senators are wrestling with liberal colleagues over whether to vote on an energy reform bill if it does not include measures to address global warming. 

 A group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) support bringing an energy-only bill to the Senate floor, and centrist colleagues such as Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are sympathetic. 

 

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But liberal Democrats led by Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) have blocked the effort because environmentalists believe it will be virtually impossible to pass global warming legislation in the near future without hitching it to incentives in the energy bill.

 The question may ultimately be decided by the outcome of a debate over something wholly unrelated: Wall Street reform.

 Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that if Republicans take a unified partisan stance against Wall Street reform, which Democrats had thought would be a slam dunk, it may not make sense to spend weeks trying to muster 60 votes for a controversial climate change proposal.

 “If Republicans continue to play pure politics with financial reform, they would probably come close to shutting it down,” McCaskill said of the impact of Republican opposition on bipartisan talks on climate change.

 “That’s a bad sign of how productive we’ll be,” she said.

McCaskill is a swing vote within the Democratic caucus on how to proceed on energy reform and climate change. Though she hasn’t called for Kerry, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to give up bipartisan negotiations, she fears how a carbon cap may impact her coal-reliant state.

 Dorgan has recently stepped up his case for leaders to move forward with the energy reform bill passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That measure does not include a proposal to limit U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020, a goal that President Barack Obama has pledged to the international community.

 “Why lose both?” Dorgan said of the prospect of the energy bill failing because of controversy over a proposal to limit carbon emissions. “The energy bill actually reduces the emission of carbon. We’re maximizing the production of wind and carbon.”

Dorgan has suggested that proponents of climate change legislation offer their carbon proposal as an amendment to the energy bill. But that idea has been rejected on the grounds that it would be too difficult to gather 60 votes to approve an amendment.

But, according to Senate sources, Kerry and Boxer have blocked that effort.

 And so far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has stuck to his plan to give Kerry, Graham and Lieberman a chance to bring climate legislation to the floor.

 Kerry had planned to unveil his climate bill this week but will now wait until April 26.

 Dorgan has warned colleagues that time is running out on the 111th Congress. 

 “There are not a lot of weeks left in this legislative session, and my fervent hope, I would say to those who have been working on climate change and blocking our ability to bring an energy bill to the floor of the Senate, is that we can perhaps find a way to work together to bring the energy bill to the floor,” Dorgan said on the Senate floor last week.

But liberals are loath to give up their goal of passing climate legislation this year, which Obama made his second-highest domestic policy initiative after healthcare reform. 

A Senate Democratic aide said that supporters of climate change legislation worry that passing an energy-only bill will wreck their strategy to limit emissions suspected of causing a greenhouse effect.

 The aide said that provisions in an energy bill, such as giving coastal states royalties from offshore drilling operations, would give lawmakers on the fence incentive to support a climate change proposal.

 Graham, the main Republican negotiator, has made clear that his chief incentive is to bolster U.S. energy independence by increasing nuclear energy production and through other means.

 Liberal Democrats fear it would become much more difficult to entice Republicans and centrist Democrats to vote for restrictions on carbon emissions if such energy incentives are voted on separately.

 “It leaves you down the road in the position where all you have left is the hard stuff,” said the Democratic aide. “It’s hard to get that across the line without the engine that drives the train.”

 Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group that supports restricting emissions, said passing an energy-only bill “would make it a heck of a lot tougher to pass climate legislation.”

 “It would give Congress political cover not to pass climate legislation as far as the eye can see,” said O’Donnell.

 “The energy production aspects are designed to gain support for a bigger package,” he said. “If you peeled off the energy provisions, the effort to pass climate legislation would fizzle.”

 Liberal Democrats have warned privately that they would vote against an energy-only bill.

 David Hamilton, the director of the Global Warming and Energy Program at the Sierra Club, said that liberals wouldn’t agree to expanded offshore drilling and to other concessions proposed to win support for carbon curbs.

 Hamilton said the bill passed by the Energy Committee is “wholly insufficient to be a substitute for a comprehensive climate and energy bill.”

 He cited concerns over provisions affecting energy exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf and over the proposed renewable electricity standard.

 But proponents of moving an energy-only bill note that Republican opposition has stalled the pace of legislative business and colleagues should take a more realistic view of what can get done in the remaining weeks.

 Reid had hoped to bring Wall Street reform to the floor this week, but that plan became doubtful Monday when Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pledged to support a GOP filibuster of the legislation.

 Collins urged Reid to delay the bill three or four weeks so that Democrats and Republicans could negotiate a compromise. The time spent negotiating financial reform would likely divert attention from building bipartisan agreement on climate change.

Ben Geman contributed to this report.