One year ago last week, the House passed an energy and climate bill with a first-ever cap on greenhouse gas emissions. It got through with an exceedingly narrow margin—seven votes. The Senate has been dithering over it ever since.
President Obama, in his Oval Office address on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, called upon the Senate to get back on track. His plea, however vague and unsatisfying it was to critics, has at least given the issue new momentum and visibility. Top Democrats met to discuss their options, and Obama quickly scheduled a meeting at the White House with top senators from both parties on the merits of various proposals. After postponing it for a week, he met with roughly 20 senators on Tuesday for about an hour and a half.
According to the White House, Obama told the attendees that the best way to spur clean energy is to put "a price on pollution." But as with his position on the public option during the debate over healthcare reform, he's not dictating requirements. As the White House said, "not all of the senators agreed with this approach, and the president welcomed other approaches and ideas." [See photos from the Gulf oil spill.]
What's obvious already, though, is that much has changed in the year since the House passed its bill, and the changes surely complicate the bill's prospects in the Senate. Advocates are clearly hopeful that the Gulf spill will rally support for their cause. But other forces are at work now, too. The Tea Party may have failed to stop healthcare reform, but its concerns over the deficit—and the role and size of government—have seeped into the national narrative, leading many in Congress to be wary of programs that might reek of big government. [See which congressman gets the most from the oil industry.]
That means proponents of a climate bill are having to adjust by seeking out new strategies and exploring alternatives. For much of the past year—if not the past decade—the dominant idea for emissions control has been "cap and trade," under which Congress would set a limit on emissions, give industries permits to emit a set amount of pollution, and let them buy and sell these permits to lower the cost of complying. It's a market-based strategy, one endorsed by dozens of major companies, and in part for that reason it's been popular among Democratic leadership, often to the exclusion of other ideas.
But that may be changing. On the upswing, for example, is a proposal by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, a Democrat, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, that would cap emissions and require polluters to buy permits, as in other plans, but it would pay out through checks to Americans the bulk of the money raised from the permits. And unlike "cap-and-trade," the Cantwell-Collins approach wouldn't set up a complicated financial market for trading permits. In theory, this addresses two big concerns that dog climate legislation: that it'll be a huge bureaucratic mess, and that Americans won't reap any benefits. [See where Collins's campaign cash comes from.]
Another idea making the rounds is to pare down "cap-and-trade," so that the cap applies only to power plants, rather than all major industries. Several senators after Tuesday's meeting indicated that the idea is gaining traction as a potential compromise.
Cantwell and Collins were among the lawmakers invited to Obama's White House meeting, and perhaps that shouldn't have been surprising. During the campaign, Obama talked about using money from a carbon cap for middle-class tax breaks, and went so far as to include the idea in his first budget proposal last year. Many top Democrats, though, considered it an affront to the generally accepted idea that money from a carbon cap should cushion industry, so they beat it back.
But cap-and-trade's continued struggles have opened up alternatives and, with it, a continued search for votes. That the Cantwell-Collins plan is getting a new look is due partly to it's bipartisan origin. There's some talk that Collins might be able to woo other moderate Republicans to garner at least the 60 votes needed to pass a climate bill. A narrow, utility-only cap might do the same. The bigger problem, though, might be timing. "I don't see a vote happening in this Congress," says Tyson Slocum, energy director for the advocacy group Public Citizen. "It's too late."