Senate liberals threaten rebellion on energy bill

Liberal Democrats in the Senate are threatening to vote against energy legislation if it does not address global climate change.

After watching centrist Democrats and Republicans shrink the 2009 economic stimulus package, strip the public option from healthcare reform and slice a pending package of safety-net program extensions, liberal senators are reaching the limits of their patience.

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They don’t want to watch leaders rip out what they consider the core element of energy reform and advertise the result as a comprehensive solution.

Yet it appears that is exactly what Senate Democratic leaders plan to do.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to include provisions to address the Gulf oil spill and strengthen regulation of deepwater drilling to the energy legislation, but Reid on Thursday declined to commit to including climate change provisions in the bill.

Some of the strongest critics of offshore drilling within the Democratic Conference now warn they may not vote for it without a measure to require industry to pay for carbon pollution.

“It’s hard to imagine that I would support it,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), after Democrats met Thursday to discuss energy legislation.

Democratic lawmakers heard presentations on energy proposals from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Kerry-Lieberman proposal and Cantwell’s bill would limit carbon emissions. The Bingaman bill would create a renewable electricity standard and federal incentives for nuclear energy and natural gas production, but would not limit carbon.

“At some point there has to be an incentive to limit emissions,” Lautenberg said.

Lautenberg argued that China has become a major exporter of solar panels and there is not sufficient incentive for American industry to invest heavily in their production.

He and other Democrats believe that placing a fee on carbon emissions will make renewable energy technology more competitive in the marketplace.

“The foundation of any serious comprehensive energy bill is placing a price on carbon pollution so the polluters can’t keep doing it for free,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a leading liberal Democrat from Rhode Island.

Whitehouse said “it would be very challenging” to vote for an energy bill that did not take a significant step to limit carbon emissions.

“Everything else is just purfling around the edges,” he said, making reference to wooden inlays used to decorate guitars.

But other members of the Democratic Conference, especially lawmakers from coal-dependent states such as West Virginia and Indiana, are less eager to consider a cap on carbon.

Two days after President Barack Obama delivered his first Oval Office address to spur congressional action on energy legislation, Democrats emerged from Thursday’s meeting with a desultory air and little progress to report.

A trickle of legislative progress on the Senate floor this week has contributed to a lack of optimism for energy reform. A partisan stalemate may stall progress on a package of tax-credit and social safety-net provisions, normally routine legislation, for another week.

Democratic lawmakers spent more than an hour Thursday in the wood-paneled Mansfield Room off the Senate chamber listening to presentations but did not get around to debating what to do next.

Reid plans to hold another caucus meeting on energy reform next week. But the pace of the negotiations has raised doubt about whether the Senate can pass a comprehensive energy bill by the start of the monthlong August recess.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he was not persuaded about supporting a carbon cap after emerging from the meeting.

“If anything has a chance, it’s the Bingaman proposal,” said Rockefeller.

Environmental groups have criticized Bingaman’s bill for providing generous loan guarantees to the nuclear industry and a renewable electricity standard they consider too lax.

Sen. Mark Udall, a liberal Democrat from Colorado who sits on the Energy Committee, voted for Bingaman’s bill at the committee level. But he said he supported it with the understanding that it would be paired with a climate measure.

“The Bingaman bill was crafted with the understanding that a system to price carbon would be linked,” said Udall. “I’m still not willing to back off, and a number of senators agree with me.”

Kerry and Lieberman tried to spur their colleagues to action Thursday by holding a meeting at noon with corporate executives who favor a fee on carbon emissions.

The CEOs of General Electric, Dow Corning and Honeywell International told nearly 20 senators that a cap on carbon emissions would fuel investment in renewable energy technologies and create new jobs across the country.

“They’ve been very vocal in saying there needs to be a price on carbon,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who attended the meeting.

Liberal Democrats say it will be virtually impossible to wean the country off fossil fuels if alternative energy production is not made more economically attractive. They argue the best way to do this is to price carbon.

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Citing a recent analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, Kerry and Lieberman say the cost to the average household would be less than $1 a day.

Liberals say that leaders cannot fulfill their promise to pass comprehensive energy reform unless they take this step.

 “We obviously don’t have comprehensive energy reform unless we address the pollution that comes from carbon,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Ben Geman contributed to this story.

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