White House suggestion of narrow climate bill hits political headwinds

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the Wall Street Journal on Friday that “The idea of a ‘utilities only’ [approach] will also be welcomed” as a topic for discussion at the Wednesday meeting.

Emanuel floated the trial balloon at a time when advocates of greenhouse gas limits are struggling to keep any carbon provisions in the mix as the Senate prepares to debate energy legislation this summer.

The idea of a “utility-only” approach that would not impose limits on manufacturers, oil refiners or transportation fuels has for months been batted around climate discussions. The “economy-wide” cap-and-trade plan the House approved last year is believed to be dead in the Senate.

Emanuel’s comment Friday, however, provided the strongest indication yet that the power plant-focused idea is attracting White House attention.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is also slated to attend the Wednesday meeting, said Monday that she does not support the concept, and on Sunday told CNN that she does not believe the more limited approach could win 60 votes.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is considered unlikely to vote for a sweeping climate change bill, told reporters he’s also wary of a utility-focused plan. “I am very worried about what that might do to electricity generation rates in Nebraska,” he said Monday.

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who favors greenhouse gas caps, was less critical. “Obviously the more comprehensive the better, but I am not going to draw any hard lines in the sand,” he said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has floated the utility-focused idea in the past but said Monday that “my hope is that we can find common cause on an economy-wide carbon bill.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is pushing a climate plan with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), signaled over the weekend and again on Monday that he's open to the power plant idea. He said Monday that he favors a broader approach but added, "I want to get something started."

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