Senate Democrats today abandoned their summer bid to pass a broad energy and climate bill, instead opting to push off the politically heated debate over pricing carbon until at least this fall.
Instead, Democrats will bring a small energy package to the floor in the next two weeks headlined by legislation responding to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, while vowing to continue to work to rally support for a broader climate and energy bill down the road.
“To be clear, we are not putting forth this bill in place of a comprehensive bill,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “But we will not pass up the opportunity to hold BP accountable, lessen our dependence on oil, create good-paying American jobs and protect the environment.”
The pared-down package will also include the “Home Star” energy-efficiency retrofit program, provide tax incentives for converting truck fleets to run on natural gas, and add funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund — three programs that have previously received bipartisan support.
In addition to the decision not to include a climate title in the bill, another notable absence from the package was a renewable energy standard, which had been previously expected to make the final cut regardless of the fate of a carbon cap. The standard was a key pillar in a bill the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved with bipartisan support last summer.
Reid made the announcement this afternoon after an hourlong meeting with his 59-member caucus, admitting what had become increasingly obvious: Democrats lack the 60 votes necessary to pass climate legislation.
“It’s easy to count to 60,” Reid said. “We know where we are; we know we don’t have the votes.”
“To reach those 60 votes, you’ve got to have some Republicans, and as we stand here today, we don’t have one Republican,” added Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has emerged as the chamber’s top climate negotiator.
Kerry said that Reid’s decision would allow him and other liberal Democrats to continue to round up support for pricing carbon and would allow for more comprehensive energy legislation in the future.
“Harry Reid, today, has committed to giving us that opportunity, that open door, if you will, over the next days, weeks, months, whatever it takes, to find those 60 votes,” Kerry said. “So the work will continue every single day.”
But while Reid and Kerry attempted to pin the blame on Republicans, despite their best efforts Democrats have been unable to unite their own caucus around a cap-and-trade program.
When asked, Reid declined to provide a head count for how many votes he actually had for a climate bill, drawing immediate fire from the GOP.
“Reid can hardly blame Republicans for opposing legislation that would raise energy prices on Americans, when his own party doesn’t even support the idea,” Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said via e-mail.
During their brief press conference, Reid and Kerry attempted to defuse growing anger from some environmentalists who believe that the White House did not invest enough political capital in the process. They were joined by Carol Browner, President Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, in making the announcement.
“President Obama … has talked to me many times about energy legislation and the need for it,” Reid said. “He did this starting back in the campaign and didn’t stop after being elected president. His people … are talking to me all the time about energy.”
Reid has not unveiled the specific language that he plans to take to the floor, but suggested today that the package will draw heavily from language that has already been written.
He said the spill-response legislation would be based on Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) bill (S. 3305) to raise the oil spill liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion. He declined to say whether the title would include any changes to offshore drilling or the outer continental shelf.
“We’ll see what’s in it,” Reid said.
Reid also said that the natural gas legislation would be drawn from a proposal co-sponsored by Menendez and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah.), which provides tax breaks for natural gas-powered vehicles and refueling infrastructure.
Reid did not say where the Home Star legislation would come from, but the House passed H.R. 5019 in May, which would provide roughly $6 billion for the home energy retrofit rebate program.
News of Reid’s decision leaked shortly before this afternoon’s caucus meeting, but the message did not reach a number of Democrats who had to wait to hear the decision at the lunch meeting.
“The information we got at lunch today was news to almost all of us,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said upon leaving the caucus. “We’re still digesting.”
Some Democrats applauded Reid’s decision to move forward with a narrower package, given the time constraints and political hurdles.
“Given the time constraints, this is probably a realistic judgment on his part,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who has been critical of efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions, said he approved of the decision to leave the more controversial measures off the table for now. “It takes 60 votes,” Nelson said. “And if you can’t get 60 votes for a package, there’s no reason to bring it to the floor.”
Nelson had said he would not vote for cloture on a cap-and-trade bill.
Still, Nelson said, “There are obviously people who would like to see a much broader-based energy, climate change bill than will be coming out at this point in time.”
Senators who had hoped to see broader provisions dealing with energy and climate expressed disappointment that they did not make the final cut, but some say they will continue to push for broader bills.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he was disappointed in Reid’s plan to leave major portions of legislation, such as the renewable electricity standard, that cleared the Energy Committee out of the final package.
“I think that there is much more to do,” Dorgan said. “I think the leader has calculated that this is all that he is able to do. But having spent 10 weeks marking up an energy bill that does a lot of good things, I think it’s disappointing that we will not be able to consider it.”
Casey said he thinks a lot of people are frustrated that the bill won’t include a carbon cap. “But we still have time this summer to keep working and lining up votes and September, as well,” he said. “We just have to keep working.”
“One thing we can’t do is let this be the end of the discussion. None of us will accept that,” Casey added. “We’ve got to keep going on something more comprehensive and in the meantime work with the White House and work with our caucus to get this finished.”
The provisions Reid will send to the floor are “just first steps,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “We are not done.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) blamed Republicans for the difficulty in pushing a sweeping climate and energy bill through Congress. “On any of these major issues, they vote no, and we’ve got to get some Republican votes, because there’s not unanimity in our caucus,” he said.
“I want to see us move. I still think we’ll get a decent bill,” Brown added. Asked whether they could get something done in the fall, he said, “I don’t give up yet on the next two weeks.”
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters and a key negotiator in environmental legislation, said he and other advocates will continue to pressure Congress to tackle climate change.
“This issue is too critical too fail, too important to stop working on it, so we need to keep working in this Congress, keep the pressure on,” Karpinski told reporters today.
The Obama administration and environmental activists today touted looming U.S. EPA climate regulations as a backstop if Congress fails to act to curb greenhouse gases this year, but lawmakers wary of those regulations are expected to ramp up their efforts to delay or block EPA action.
“We will continue to use our existing tools to address the problem,” Browner said today.
“There’s still a chance in this Congress,” said Karpinski of the League of Conservation Voters. “But there’s also efforts going on in the states, which are making big inroads, the EPA and DOT have made progress in terms of automobile pollution, and the EPA is going to step up as it’s beginning to make progress in other parts of pollution, as well. That’s the alternative path — that’s the additional path, rather, that’s happening as we speak.”
But several senators critical of EPA rules have said they will try a variety of legislative paths to block the forthcoming regulations, which they say will damage the economy and impose severe regulatory burdens on industries. One such effort is expected to come from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has introduced a bill that would block EPA from regulating industrial sources of greenhouse gas emissions for two years. Reid has promised Rockefeller a vote on his bill by the end of the year.
Reporters Alex Kaplun and Katherine Ling contributed.