WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders shelved plans for major energy and climate legislation on Thursday, a bow to political reality that ended their hopes for action this year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost alternative energy production and wean the nation from carbon fuels.
Majority Leader Harry Reid – who just last week had promised to bring a sweeping energy bill with an emissions cap to the Senate floor by the August recess – said he will instead offer a scaled-back bill focused largely on responding to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The new bill will also include money for home energy-efficiency retrofits, for encouraging natural-gas powered vehicles and for land and water conservation, Reid said.
It will drop the two most aggressive and controversial provisions of the energy bill the House passed last year: a market-based cap on greenhouse gas emissions and nationwide mandates for renewable electricity generation.
Some environmentalists and clean-energy activists held out hope a comprehensive bill could still pass in the lame-duck session after the election, though most analysts doubt the possibility.
Reid’s decision reflects “the realities of the Senate calendar and the mood of Congress before the election,” said Joshua Freed, who directs the clean-energy program for the Democratic think tank Third Way. “We still have opportunities after the election. It’s a long time between now and then, though, to judge how to get that done.”
Still, the scaled-back bill falls far short of the ambition of several bipartisan or Republican energy proposals, including an energy-efficiency bill authored by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and a bill the Senate energy committee passed last year with Democratic and Republican votes, which includes renewable electricity mandates.
Enacting a broad energy-climate bill had always been problematic, especially during a period of economic pain, since it would almost certainly impose higher energy prices and potentially penalize coal-producing and industrial states.
No Republicans signed onto the leading climate proposal, despite lobbying from environmental groups and some industry officials who won key concessions in early drafts of the bill.
Reid blamed the GOP for the impasse, even though he and the White House were unable to persuade several energy- and manufacturing-state Democrats to pledge support.
In a news conference with White House energy czar Carol Browner and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Reid acknowledged “we don’t have the votes” for a comprehensive bill. “This is not the only energy legislation we’re going to do,” he pledged. “This is what we can do now.”
Browner conceded that “obviously, everyone is disappointed that we do not yet have an agreement on comprehensive legislation.”
Some environmentalists called the lack of votes a failure of Senate and presidential leadership – particularly in light of the oil spill, which climate activists had hoped would galvanize Congress to pass legislation reducing oil use and capping emissions.
They faulted Obama, in particular, for not engaging earlier and more aggressively with individual senators to enlist support.
A prominent climate blogger, Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress, posted a piece Thursday decrying the “failed presidency of Barack Obama.”
An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the energy negotiations, said the White House is “not packing its bags” on a comprehensive energy bill, but “we’re not interested in a vote that’s not going to succeed.”
“We have an opportunity to do something within the next couple of weeks, and we’re going to seize that opportunity,” the official said.
The exact details of Reid’s scaled-back bill remain unclear, but it drew criticism from the left and the right nonetheless.
The proposal is “not going to result in jobs, it’s not going to reboot our economy, and it’s not going to reduce our dependence on oil,” said Franz Matzner, climate legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.