Climate change legislation teetering after setbacks from Oval Office and Congress

Climate change legislation appears dead after two setbacks in quick succession — first from the Oval Office and then from Congress.

Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), a crucial Republican swing vote, met with President Barack Obama on Wednesday and told him he would not support a cap-and-trade plan or carbon fee to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

But this blow came after Obama delivered the first setback Tuesday night. In his primetimes speech, he called for comprehensive energy reform but did not propose an emissions cap.

This stance may parallel his rhetorical backing for a public healthcare option that, however, was later excluded from reform legislation.

The White House has told Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and environmental activists that it supports the carbon cap in his bill, but the presidential bully pulpit has not been used to demand it.

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A senior Democratic senator said Obama knows the chances of passing climate change legislation are slim and wants to avoid a public failure.

“He knows that if he mentioned a carbon cap, his success or failure would be measured by his ability to get it,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.



Sens. Kerry and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), authors of a cap-and-trade plan, said the president’s speech gave them hope.

“The whole thrust of that last part of that speech is this is the moment to do something transformational to prove that we can do something truly significant that people think we can’t do,” said Lieberman. “I don’t think that leads to just another kind of ordinary energy bill. I think it leads to something big.”

But other lawmakers said a nationwide cap on emissions is now substantially less likely.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has pushed Democratic leaders to bring an energy-only reform bill to the floor without cap-and-trade, said: “My assessment is the 60 votes don’t exist.”

A comprehensive energy bill needs 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the upper chamber.

The Senate Democratic Conference will meet Thursday afternoon to discuss its climate legislation strategy. But members do not expect to agree on a carbon cap.

 “We’re working towards it; it’s not a definite when we do it,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) when asked about a timeline for unveiling a bill. “We’re working toward getting a bill on the floor as soon as we can.”

 Reid said he had not decided to exclude the Kerry-Lieberman climate measure from the energy bill. “At this stage I’m thinking about everything,” he added.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week that Democratic leaders were leaning toward an energy bill without a climate-change element.

 Schumer predicted that a climate measure capping carbon emissions would be offered as an amendment during the floor debate.

The underlying  bill would be Bingaman’s measure, Schumer said, which creates a renewable electricity standard and subsidies for nuclear energy and natural gas production. Provisions addressing the Gulf oil spill would be added to this legislation.

 Environmental groups balked at Schumer’s strategy because it would make climate change legislation tougher to pass. It would stand a better chance embedded from the outset in a bill containing popular energy provisions and proposals to prevent future oil spills.

Schumer has tried to walk back his comments, but Senate insiders see them as reflecting Reid’s thinking.

Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), a Republican considered a swing vote on climate change, says Kerry-Lieberman does not have nearly enough votes to pass.

“A bill with a cap-and-trade or carbon pricing plan would get 50 votes, maybe 51 votes,” he said.

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Lugar has a bill that would instead seek reduced emissions without a carbon cap. It would raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, set targets for buildings to become more energy-efficient and help energy-intensive industries pay to become more efficient.

Lugar claims the bill would reach half of Obama’s goal for reducing carbon emissions.

Kerry and Lieberman thought an Environmental Protection Agency report this week boosted their chances by suggesting their legislation would cost an average household less than $1 a day.

 But Brown reversed that momentum after Obama invited him to the White House.

 “He did talk about climate and his concerns about the climate and I basically told him that I’m not in favor nor could I support a national energy tax or a cap-and-trade proposal,” Brown told reporters after the meeting.

Brown said he would happily work with Obama to pick the “low-hanging fruit” of energy reform.

 “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, providing grants and loans to our businesses,” Brown said.

Liberal lawmakers and environmental groups said Wednesday that energy legislation without a cap on carbon emissions was not comprehensive reform.

“Climate is not a subset of energy,” said David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club. “You can’t pretend to solve the problem without doing climate.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading liberal in the Senate, said it would be “very challenging” to support an energy bill that did not put a price on carbon.

Obama will try again to drum up bipartisan support for a climate measure next Wednesday, when he is to meet with Democratic and Republican senators. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped negotiate the Kerry-Lieberman plan, has been invited, although he now backs the Lugar alternative to Kerry-Lieberman.