Salazar launches push to ‘thread the needle’ on bipartisan energy deal

The Obama administration is opening fresh talks with Congress aimed at bridging bitter political divides on energy.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met Thursday with a bipartisan mix of seven senators — including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — in what Salazar called an effort to “thread the needle” on energy legislation.

“We’re trying to figure out how we might be able to thread the needle together to get the kind of bipartisan coalition that would help move forward with energy legislation,” Salazar said Thursday after a closed-door meeting with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

Salazar met Thursday with Reid and Carper, as well as Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

The efforts comes after bills to expand offshore drilling and slash tax breaks for major oil companies sputtered on the Senate floor this week, laying bare wide political rifts over energy in the process.

But Salazar told reporters after the series of meetings that he believes lawmakers can coalesce around three broad issues: expanded energy production, alternative fuels and energy efficiency.

“When you look at the different components of what we’re trying to address — production, alternative fuels and efficiency — there is a way in which good minds can come together and craft a piece of substantive legislation that will be a good bill,” Salazar said.

Pryor said his meeting with Salazar was a broad discussion that did not delve into specifics.

“He just wanted to get my read on where the Senate was on energy policy,” Pryor told The Hill in the Capitol. “It was more just about the prospect generally of do we think its possible that we might pass an energy bill this year.”

Pryor said anything viable “would not be a wish list for one side or the other.” He said Salazar, a former Colorado senator elected in 2004, is well-positioned to help move legislation.

“People here have a lot of respect for Ken Salazar. They know him and they know he is a very good legislator. Most people on both sides feel like he has been a very strong Secretary of Interior,” Pryor said.

Shaheen said the meeting touched on the wide-ranging energy efficiency bill that she introduced this month with Portman, as well as on her interest in oil spill cleanup R&D.

Lawmakers must carefully weave existing pieces of legislation together to come up with a broad bill that can pass the Senate, Hoeven told The Hill.

"There’s a lot of pieces of legislation," Hoeven said. "The key is how to bring some of those together and get them in a form where we can get enough support to move them.”

And Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a critic of the administration's offshore-drilling policies, said a bill must originate from centrist and moderate lawmakers to have a chance of passing the Senate.

“It’s going to have to be something that’s driven form the center, out, as opposed to what came up this week, which is the best the two wings of the parties can come up with," she told The Hill, referencing failed attempts to block oil tax breaks and expand offshore drilling. "Now it’s time for the Senate to step up and put something together that can actually pass.”

Beyond Salazar’s new push, there are other bipartisan talks afoot or planned despite political warfare on energy that has become more intense amid high gas prices.

Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) several weeks ago reformed the “gang” of senators that tried — and failed — to craft a sweeping bipartisan energy plan in 2008 (and counted then-senator Salazar among its members).

While Conrad and Chambliss have been knee-deep in a separate Senate and in a higher-profile “gang” trying to negotiate a deficit-cutting plan, Chambliss told The Hill on Thursday that the energy group “will be getting back together at some point.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, said this week he’s reaching out to a bipartisan group of colleagues and sees an opening for measures that expand oil-and-gas drilling while “reshaping” oil industry subsidies.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is hoping for bipartisan support to move revived bills on offshore-drilling safety and spurring oil production through his panel.

Bingaman is also planning to steer more modest bipartisan bills through his committee soon, including a bill aimed at speeding carbon capture and storage technologies toward commercialization.

The Obama administration shifted on offshore drilling last week amid high gas prices. President Obama, in his Saturday radio address, outlined a series of steps designed to show that the administration is serious about expanding domestic oil production and lowering gas prices.

Meanwhile, Salazar, testifying at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing earlier this week, unveiled a legislative wish list aimed at developing a framework for “efficient and responsible” domestic oil drilling.

Moving any energy bill through the full Senate will need substantial GOP buy-in, and partisan divides were evident on the floor this week.

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected legislation that top Democrats are pushing to repeal $21 billion over a decade worth of tax breaks for oil companies like Exxon and Shell and apply the savings to deficit reduction.

On Wednesday, the chamber blocked a bill introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) aimed at expanding and speeding up domestic oil drilling. It didn’t get a single Democratic vote.

This story was updated at 3:17 p.m.