Senate Democrats still short on answers after caucus meeting on energy bill

Senate Democrats emerged from a caucus meeting on energy Thursday with major questions about the shape of their legislation unanswered.

While Democrats offered the political message that they’re ready to move ahead with an energy bill, they spoke only in broad strokes and slogans about their plans days before a pivotal White House meeting next week between President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators.

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Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who hopes to bring energy legislation to the floor next month, was one of several senators who uniformly praised the meeting and claimed momentum.

“It was inspirational, quite frankly,” Reid said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — who is struggling to win traction for mandates that limit greenhouse gases — called the meeting “absolutely thrilling,” lauded his colleagues’ “passion and purpose” and said there was “powerful unity.”

The energy legislation is expected to be a mix of provisions that respond to the BP oil spill — such as changes in drilling safeguards — combined with measures to boost conservation and use of “clean” energy sources.

“Whatever form it takes ... we agree we must deal with the catastrophe in the Gulf, we must create millions of new jobs, we must cut pollution and it must strengthen our economic security and our national security and our energy independence,” said Reid, who warned of the dangers of climate change.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). said lawmakers batted around new ways to help move a bill forward.

“There was discussion about different ways in which to advance a bill, so people were putting ideas out. One was forming a group from different parts of the country and different committees to work on this,” Klobuchar said, but added it was not a “consensus proposal.”

“The main focus was there was a clear sense of urgency,” she said.

Some pieces of the bill are taking shape. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) plans to mark up legislation next week to overhaul federal offshore drilling oversight in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But a key question — which the lawmakers did not address head-on after the meeting — is whether the bill will include measures that impose caps on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources.

Carbon limits are vital to environmental groups and many liberal Democrats but face big Senate hurdles — most Republicans oppose them and several centrist Democrats are wary, too.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — who has authored a broad climate and energy bill with Lieberman — and others all repeatedly said Thursday that they’re committed to the idea that the “polluter pays.” But they did not say how that translates into legislation.

“We have had a longstanding principle in America that the polluter pays,” Kerry said. “You will have to see what we come to the floor with, but that is a principle that is going to guide us and that was uniform within the caucus.”

“I have more confidence than I have had in a long time that we are going to be able to pass a strong, comprehensive clean-energy bill that makes polluters pay,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman and Reid noted, however, that they must corral GOP support.

“We are going to challenge some of our Republican colleagues to do what I know that they know is the right and necessary thing for America, and we are going to get 60 votes or more for a better, safer American future,” Lieberman said.

In addition to the meeting with Obama, next week could bring more clarity on the shape of the Senate’s response to safety risks brought to light by the BP oil spill.

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Bingaman and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the energy committee’s top Republican, introduced legislation several days ago ahead of a committee markup slated for next Wednesday.

The specifics of the markup have not been finalized. But their bill would codify the Interior Department’s overhaul of its offshore drilling regulatory structure, which divided the leasing, permitting and revenue collection functions.

The sweeping bill also gives regulators more time to review industry exploration plans, requires redundancy systems for “blowout preventers” on offshore rigs and beefs up inspection requirements, among many other provisions.

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