By Evan Lehmann and Dina Fine Maron
Emotions surged during a "thrilling" caucus gathering in which Democrats plotted to bring a vote on climate legislation to the floor this summer. They promised to challenge resistant Republicans to oppose a measure focusing on polluters as oil from the site of an exploded rig continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico.
But the party faces the same thorny questions it did before the rousing "rank and file uprising," as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) described the meeting. The questions include whether Democrats have enough support among their own members to impose a price on greenhouse gas emissions.
Democrats also failed to combine their splintered views on which piece of legislation should take center stage, leaving the legislative path ill-defined with less than 30 days remaining in the summer work period.
Instead, the party coalesced around the principle of "polluters pay," foreshadowing what they believe will be a potent political message during a looming battle in the Senate aimed at coupling climate policies with strong oversight measures on offshore oil drilling and relief to spill victims.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seems prepared to use that strategy in an attempt to reach 60 votes, an elusive threshold that observers say might not be met without some innovative forcefulness on the Senate floor.
"The Democratic caucus realizes that we have a problem," Reid said after the meeting. "We have a phenomenon here that if we don't do something about, our planet's destruction could be there. The security of our nation depends on a good energy policy."
Hopes that the spill has energized public opinion
Republicans have sourly predicted Reid's strategy of tying popular oil spill provisions to controversial climate policies that charge industrial emitters for releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is working on the spill measures, described the move this week as "untenable."
Still, Democrats are betting that the Gulf spill's black backdrop will energize public support for wider action on clean energy, making it difficult for Republicans and even wavering Democrats to block clean energy legislation before midterm elections.
"I think that the strategy of bringing up a bill and working toward that 60 ... it's going to force people out of the woodwork," said Franz Matzner, climate legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The party lacks clarity, however, on which climate measures it will add to the legislation.
The boldest approach, offered by Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), would price carbon released by electric utilities, manufacturers and refiners. But that has so far failed to gain more than 50 supporters, 10 shy of passage.
Kerry emerged from the meeting saying it was "one of the most motivating" he has ever seen. He said senators didn't focus on his bill or anyone else's. But it was decided, he said, to accelerate their effort around the "principle that the polluter pays."
"Everybody was in agreement that this is the moment," Kerry said. "We're convinced that we can do it. We obviously need some Republicans to stand up and be with us, but we're determined to bring a bill to the floor of the Senate that we think is reasonable, makes sense, and that will help Americans be able to grab a hold of the future and not leave it to China and India and Brazil and other countries that are moving much faster than we are."
A slimmer version of the Kerry-Lieberman bill would only regulate utility emissions. The White House took the chamber's temperature on that idea over the weekend. But key Democrats from high-carbon states remain concerned.
Momentum among some Democrats?
"Utility-only is a problem," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said yesterday. "Utility-only seems to raise more questions than answers in my mind."
"Carbon pricing, you know, that's a question that is very much a matter of what the details are," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said after the meeting. "That conversation is continuing."
Other options are also available, complicating Reid's effort to gain consensus among his members, let alone attract the handful of Republicans who will be needed for success. Among them are a simpler "cap and dividend" bill by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine); a measure that phases out some old coal plants by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.); and an "energy-only" bill with a renewable electricity standard by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
"Whatever form it takes, we're going to move forward," Reid said. "We agree we must deal with the catastrophe in the Gulf, we must create millions of new jobs, we must cut pollution and we must strengthen our national security and energy independence."
To some, the meeting shows new momentum among Democrats, some of whom have been cool to the controversial idea of ending the era of emitting carbon for free.
"They don't have a huge amount of time to vet proposals, but I think up to now there's been a sense that maybe people don't want to do this, or that it's not important," said David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program. "I think the caucus meeting put that to bed."
Reid gushed about his party's uprising for climate policies. "It was inspirational," he said.
First the inspiration, then the plan
It's unclear, however, if the awakening has occurred soon enough. The Senate is not a nimble body, as shown by the weeks of work required for Wall Street reform legislation and a bill extending tax cuts. The chamber has one work week left before a weeklong recess for the Independence Day holiday, and then 25 workdays until the August recess.
"I think if we go into a climate bill, there's no reason to think that it's not going to take at least a month, or two, or three. And there's not that amount of time," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said yesterday. "We just spent a month on the tax extenders bill. And I got news for you: Climate change is a whooole lot more complicated than that."
One scenario being discussed off Capitol Hill depicts the Senate acting swiftly to pass a bill before August recess, and then undertaking conference -- in which the measure could be strengthened -- after the elections, when political fevers have cooled.
But that's an optimistic vision. Obama canceled a White House meeting earlier this week meant to advance the Senate toward a specific piece of climate legislation. It was a necessary cancellation, but a delay nonetheless.
Now that Reid has an inspired Senate behind him, the next task, some believe, is choosing a piece of legislation to put on the launchpad.
"I think part of this is they need to actually have a proposal that people actually try to sell," said Hamilton of the Sierra Club.