Senate Democrats pulled the plug on climate legislation Thursday, pushing the issue off into an uncertain future ahead of midterm elections where President Barack Obama’s party is girding for a drubbing.
Rather than a long-awaited measure capping greenhouse gases — or even a more limited bill directed only at electric utilities — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will move forward next week on a bipartisan energy-only bill that responds to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and contains other more popular energy items.
“It’s easy to count to 60,” Reid said. “I could do it by the time I was in eighth grade. My point is this, we know where we are. We know we don’t have the votes [for a bill capping emissions]. This is a step forward.”
“He’s anxious to get something done before we leave in August,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said of Reid. “Given the time constraints, this probably is a realistic judgment on his part.”
“We don’t have the 60 votes,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “So Sen. Reid’s a pragmatist. So rather than take us to a situation where we don’t have the votes, rather than do half-measures, let’s wait until we can get it done and get it right. So I think it’s a smart decision.”
The bill headed to the floor will not include a carbon cap or a renewable electricity standard, Bingaman said. Instead, it has low-hanging-fruit provisions dealing with the oil spill, Home Star energy efficiency upgrades, incentives for the conversion of trucking fleet to natural gas and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was visibly disappointed but said he isn’t giving up hope on getting “a decent bill” on climate within the next two weeks.
Still, he said, “the Republicans don’t want to cooperate on anything. On any of these major issues they vote no, and we’ve got to get some Republican votes because we don’t have unanimity in our caucus. So we’re still hoping they decide they want to govern instead of scoring political points.”
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) insisted that he, too, had hope for getting some kind of climate bill through the Senate in the next two weeks. He said he spoke with Obama Thursday and that the president had “committed to work at a more intensive pace” in the days ahead.
But the writing has been on the wall all week, with advocates lowering expectations in light of continued opposition from GOP senators and some moderate Democrats.
“I don’t believe an energy bill has ever passed off the floor in less than about three weeks,” Kerry said earlier Thursday during a town-hall style forum hosted by the Clean Energy Works, an umbrella advocacy organization that includes environmentalists, labor and religious groups. “The fact is this is a very complicated bill that has a lot of moving parts. I’m very realistic about that.”
“It’s not dying,” Kerry added. “It’s not going away…We’re going to try our best to find a way to do it in the next few weeks. If we can’t do it in the next weeks, we’ll do something that begins to do something responsibly in the short term. But this will stay out there, and we’ll be working on it; we’ll be asking you to talk to your senators and move them to understand why we have to get this done.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Kerry’s partner on the climate proposal, said he had no problem with Reid delaying debate on greenhouse gas caps. “If that’s the truth, it keeps the process open for negotiating a broader utilities-only bill in September,” he said.
Kerry and Lieberman are still working with the electric utility industry, including its lead trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, on a bill slicing its emissions around 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
But other Democrats have their doubts that Kerry and Lieberman will even get time for a floor debate after the August break, especially with Reid and other senators girding up for their own reelection bids.
“We’ve got very substantial constraints on our time when we get back,” Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico said Thursday.
“I don’t think there are going to be two energy packages on the floor this year,” said Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. “Whatever comes to the floor on energy is going to be the package we’re going to consider.”