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Obama and senators seek climate compromise

March 9, 2010 |  8:34 pm

President Obama convened a meeting of more than a dozen Democratic and Republican senators this afternoon to discuss energy and climate legislation.

Unlike some other recent White House bipartisan policy summits you may recall recently, there were no cameras, no bickering congressional party leaders and nowhere near six hours of made-for-TV talking points – just an 80-minute exchange that left participants with some optimism on an issue that many analysts and reporters left for dead a long time ago.

Still, there’s a long way to go toward consensus on a comprehensive energy bill that could clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold this year, which is why the more intriguing climate meeting today may have been the one directly preceding Obama’s: a Capitol Hill confab between the architects of the Senate climate bill and representatives from nearly every major industry group that the legislation figures to affect.

That meeting included officials from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, major electric utility groups, the National Assn. of Manufacturers, the cement industry and mining interests, among others, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who are piecing together a large-scale energy and climate bill with Obama’s blessing.

The senators’ message to the industry groups: Tell us what you need to support this bill. Be specific. After talking for more than an hour, the officials and the lawmakers agreed to reconvene next week. Then Kerry, Graham and Lieberman were off to the White House, where the president was searching for common ground among potential swing votes.

Obama’s guest list included senators working to address a trio of issues – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting foreign oil dependence and creating “clean energy” jobs in the United States – through a variety of approaches.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman are centering their bill around a cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the utility sector and efforts to tax or limit emissions in other parts of the economy, including transportation fuels, along with boosts for nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and renewable electricity.Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the leaders of the energy committee, have already moved a bill filled with incentives to spur domestic fossil fuel and renewable power production.

Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have penned a “cap and dividend” bill to limit carbon emissions, sell permits to emitters and refund most of the proceeds to taxpayers. Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan have insisted on protections for domestic manufacturers.

Just today, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) outlined a series of regulatory measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions without imposing an emissions cap – including stricter energy-efficiency building codes, a ratcheting up of automobile mileage standards and a national mandate for low-emissions electricity usage.

Lugar’s office said early calculations suggest the measure would eventually reduce oil imports nearly 40%.Senators pitched those and other ideas at Obama during the White House meeting.

Afterward, a White House aide described the conversation thusly: “The President expressed his strong support for a bipartisan effort to establish clean energy incentives that will create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil – and he made clear that the best way to drive a transition to a clean energy economy is to give business the predictability and certainty it needs to make investments. The Senators shared the common goal of moving America towards energy independence and creating clean energy jobs that can’t be exported, and they agreed to continue the dialogue about a path forward for comprehensive energy legislation.”

Attendees largely pronounced themselves encouraged.

Cantwell said in a press release that “There was a great deal of consensus in the room that energy and climate legislation can be a vital tool for creating jobs and improving our economy.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who partnered with Kerry on an earlier climate bill draft, said the meeting was “warm, positive and collegial” and that “although these Senators have come from different regions and different political parties, it is clear that there is broad agreement that energy efficiency and clean energy technologies are crucial to our leadership in the world and to job creation here at home.”

It’s clear that “broad agreement” could probably get 60 votes today. The devil, as they say, is in the details – for senators, and for the industry groups.

-- Jim Tankersley