Senate Dems shy from test on energy

Some Senate Democrats doubt their leaders will put energy legislation on the Senate floor again before the election for fear it could turn into a messy battle that could hurt incumbents. 

Legislation to repeal tax breaks and royalty relief for oil and gas companies that failed to get cloture Thursday could be the last energy bill to reach the floor before the election, even though the price of gas is becoming a hot political issue as it remains just short of $4 per gallon for regular.

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“The easy thing for us to do on energy is what we just did. We don’t know what else you can bring,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) after Senate Democrats met to discuss their energy agenda last week. 

Udall said Democrats expect Republicans to pounce on any energy bill that comes to the floor to force vulnerable Democratic incumbents to take difficult votes. 

“It’s going to be serious votes on both sides,” he said. “Even the simplest energy bill. [Sen. Jeanne] Shaheen [D-N.H.] has a great energy efficiency bill with [Sen. Rob] Portman [R-Ohio], completely bipartisan.

“You could put that on the floor, but everybody believes they’d dump the kitchen sink in,” he said.

Shaheen and Portman’s bill contains a popular package of incentives for businesses and homeowners to invest in insulation, computer-controlled thermostats and more efficient electric motors.

The bill passed out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on an 18-3 vote, but even strong bipartisan support might not be enough for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to risk an energy fight before the election. 

“An obvious one would be Shaheen-Portman,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “The challenge is to pass such legislation without a big debate on poison pills, such as an effort to remove the EPA’s authority to set carbon dioxide pollution-reduction standards for power plants and other sources.”

Another option for floor consideration is a bill sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to provide incentives for the development and use of electric cars and trucks.

Weiss said Republicans could also offer amendments to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s implementation of rules to limit toxic emissions. 

Republicans have repeatedly targeted the administration’s environmental regulations this election cycle. They have called for the expedited authorization of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and expanded oil and gas drilling.

The president says he does not oppose the pipeline, but refuses to rush its authorization through environmental reviews to meet GOP demands. On the issue of drilling, he notes the United States has expanded domestic production and says faster licensing of oilrigs will not have much impact on gas prices.

Democrats facing tough reelection races are not eager to defend environmental regulations. Keystone is an issue that splits their party, with Western lawmakers, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), agitating for speedy construction of the project.

President Obama showed sensitivity to the politics of environmental regulation last year when he asked the EPA to delay a controversial ozone standard for at least two years.

Democrats will spend the April recess at home bashing Republicans for voting against the repeal of oil subsidies at a time when the rising price of gasoline is a major issue. But Reid has to decide whether he’s willing to battle Republicans on the Senate floor as well.

Even if Senate Democrats managed to pass energy legislation, it might not be worth the collateral political damage since it would likely stall in the House. 

“It’s hard to imagine where you could get anything similar passed in the House,” said Weiss.

A senior Democratic aide said the leadership is keeping its options open. 

“We’re still very interested in working on common-sense bipartisan proposals to make the nation more energy-independent,” said the aide. “No decisions have been made to not advance energy measures to the floor.”

The aide said Reid could block Republican amendments from receiving votes during an energy debate. But that would likely blow up the prospects of passing a bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has frequently retaliated against Democratic efforts to limit amendments by filibustering pending legislation.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Reid has shown he is committed to protecting colleagues from political attack.

“He’s made pretty clear the reason he doesn’t want to bring up the budget is he doesn’t want his incumbents running for reelection to cast hard votes,” Cornyn said of Reid.

The senior Democratic aide said senators did not discuss Senate floor strategy at last week’s meeting.


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