By Ben Geman - 12/29/09 11:00 AM EST
Senate Democrats will face a problem when they return in January every bit as tough as crafting the healthcare bill: Assembling a climate and energy package that can be shoehorned into the election-year calendar.
Imposing limits on greenhouse gases is a White House and Democratic priority, but it’s stuck in line behind healthcare, Wall Street reform and jobs legislation.
Environmentalists familiar with Democratic plans say party leaders remain committed to bringing up a bill next year. They are looking to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) effort to craft a compromise plan with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
But in a sign of how difficult it will be to cobble together 60 votes, Kerry and Graham have provided few details about what their plan will contain.
They hope to blend emissions limits with wider offshore oil-and-gas drilling, expanded federal financing for nuclear power and a lot of support for low-emissions coal projects, among other measures aimed a navigating a thicket of regional and partisan interests.
Graham noted that different senators are proposing a variety of plans for limiting carbon emissions, and he said he’s open-minded to what is included in a bill, as long as it is a “meaningful control” on pollution.
Some Democratic centrists including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.), who are both up for reelection next year, want the Senate to take up a broad energy measure that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved in June as a standalone bill, rather than grafting it to a cap-and-trade plan.
That’s led to speculation that Democrats might seek to move an energy bill but put off the fight over climate change.
The problem with that logic is that dozens of Democrats want to move a climate change bill, including centrists such as Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who faces a tough primary fight and then a difficult general election battle.
“I think it [climate legislation] is important. I think we ought to take it up,” Specter said in a brief interview last week. He’s also said any final bill must protect manufacturers and provide a major boost for low-emissions coal.
White House officials also are calling for a combined energy and climate package, including an economy-wide cap-and-trade plan.
White House climate czar Carol Browner in November warned against “slicing and dicing,” and a White House aide said Monday that a combined energy policy and cap-and-trade package remains what the White House wants from Congress in 2010.
Linda Stuntz, an electricity industry lawyer who was an Energy Department official under President George H.W. Bush, believes the Senate will bring up a combined climate and energy bill, though she said it will face rough sledding.
“I am in the camp of those who think it is going to be very difficult after the really bruising fight over heathcare,” she said.
Stuntz does not see room in the Senate for a bill that mirrors the House plan.
“I don’t see an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill happening in 2010,” she said, adding that a narrower emissions plan, perhaps covering only power plants, could be more viable.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she has been discussing the shape of an energy and climate package with lawmakers including Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Graham.
“It is not off the radar screen,” Landrieu said Wednesday. “There have been quite a few informal meetings that have been going on through the fog of this healthcare bill.”
Reid hopes to bring legislation to the floor in the spring, but that will be difficult given the Senate’s schedule.
A former official in the Clinton White House familiar with the climate change efforts said key negotiations need to start next month on the difficult task of assembling a compromise bill.
“At some point before the end of January several new moderates from both parties have to be brought into the process if we are going to create a bill that can gain 60 votes in the Senate. What it will take to bring those votes into the process is unclear, but those conversations have got to start to happen in mid- to late January,” the former official said.
An aide to Kerry said he was not planning to conduct negotiations on the climate measure over the Senate’s holiday recess.
The sour economy could also complicate plans to impose mandatory emissions limits amid assertions by GOP leaders and many in the Republican caucus that such plans would stifle growth.
But Kevin Book, an analyst with the consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, argues the reverse is true.
He said that with states hurting financially, the billions of dollars that House and Senate cap-and-trade plans would provide to states through emissions allowances will help boost the chances for legislation that greatly expands federal environmental regulation.
“A weak economy is the only time you can have this incursion into the state regulatory franchise,” he said.
And, he notes, supporters of climate legislation have another card to play: The Environmental Protection Agency's plan to move ahead with emissions regulations if Congress does not act.
“It is going to be very hard for Democrats to come up with nothing,” he said. “The only really politically viable option for them, thanks to the White House choice to move ahead [with EPA regulations], is to pass something.”
Nonetheless, energy lobbyists are hedging their bets, looking to the jobs bill as well as the hoped-for comprehensive energy-climate package for their preferred provisions. On Monday, the American Wind Energy Association released a list of 10 trends to watch, including the fate of the renewable electricity standard (RES) that requires utilities to supply more renewable power, which the group has been seeking for years.
“Whether it is in job legislation or in comprehensive energy and climate legislation ... a strong RES is urgently needed to create hard targets that will fortify our manufacturing base and create tens of thousands of jobs,” the group said.
The timestamp on this story was initially misstated.