Senate Democrats are taking a fresh run at energy legislation this week, beginning with a bipartisan White House meeting on Wednesday and a Democratic caucus meeting on Thursday to find common ground.
The hope that the Gulf oil spill disaster might break partisan deadlock as 9/11 did – leading to a flood of new legislation – has not come to pass. So far, it has only reinforced the partisan tensions.
Moreover, Democrats are divided among themselves on the way forward. Options range from a comprehensive energy and climate change bill that sets caps for carbon emissions on one hand to two competing measures that establish renewable-energy mandates for utility companies. None of these options has the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate without a filibuster – or even to muster all the Democratic votes.
To get a bill, President Obama will have to take a stronger role.
“It's pretty clear that we have to do something,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid after a caucus luncheon on Tuesday. “A lot depends on what the White House is going to do to help us get something done."
Democrats' search for 60
In the run-up to Wednesday's meeting, Senate Democrats have been proposing scaled-down versions of energy legislation in a bid to get to 60 votes.
“I’m working with a number of colleagues now, Republicans and Democrats alike, to look at alternative ways we might be able to scale back,” said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a co-sponsor of climate change legislation that includes pricing carbon, on MSNBC.
“What the political market will bear at best is a scaled-down version,” says Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina, who broke off talks with Kerry on this bill in April. “With a weak economy, an economy-wide cap on carbon is probably not going to sell."
"Putting a business-friendly emissions control on utilities is in the realm of possibility, and that would make clean coal, nuclear, wind, and solar more affordable," he adds.
Republicans: just focus on the oil spill
Meanwhile, Republicans are balking at White House proposals to use the Gulf oil spill to jump-start legislation to move off a dependence of fossil fuels. They say new legislation should focus on helping the people that have been hurt by the spill and cleaning up the oil, period. Any new cap on carbon emissions amounts to a tax on oil that will cost jobs, they add.
“We use the oil spill crisis as an excuse to clean up the oil spill and that that [should] be our focus,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee. “And if we have another focus other than helping the people who are hurt, it's to do that cleanup and do that with the minimum amount of impact on Gulf Coast jobs.”
Typically, support for energy legislation break out on regional rather than partisan lines, depending on main energy sources in the region. For example, Southern senators complain that wind doesn't blow hard enough to create electricity in their part of the country, while coal-state senators worry that a tax on carbon emissions would undermine their economy.
But in an election year, partisan influences can derail regional alliances. It's no accident that the last two energy bills passed in 2005 and 2007, nonelection years.
“Doing anything on climate will be a heavy lift in an election year,” says Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “But If President Obama says, 'I’ve talked to my advisors and they said let’s give this a shot' – that may be what is needed to jump-start things.”