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Democrats Poised for Comprehensive Climate and Energy Approach

The postponed White House/Senate meeting on climate and energy legislation will happen tomorrow, featuring members of both parties:

THE INVITE LIST – Add Byron Dorgan to the list. Previously reported invitees: Sherrod Brown, Olympia Snowe, Jay Rockefeller, Tom Carper, Maria Cantwell, George Voinovich, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, Richard Lugar, Barbara Boxer, Jeff Bingaman, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Debbie Stabenow.

As you can see, there’s a healthy cross-section of coal/industrial state and coastal state Senators, and several Republicans. The Democrats came out of their caucus meeting last week prepared to push forward with a comprehensive bill. But it’s unlikely this collection of Senators would fully endorse that. However, there are political advantages to drawing the distinction with a comprehensive bill including a carbon cap on at least utilities.

With the gulf oil spill creating political opportunity, Senate Democrats will begin crafting a sweeping energy bill this week that could include a first-ever, though more modest, cap on global-warming pollution, believing they must act now despite differences within their ranks and political jitters in an election year […]

Still, a majority of Democrats appear willing to risk legislative failure, believing a robust summer discussion on energy would establish a stark contrast between the parties before the fall election.

Tackling energy legislation gives Democrats a strategy they believe resonates with voters — though one that would expose them to GOP taunts over higher taxes, a fight Republicans would relish.

“If we spend our time always worrying about that 60th vote, we never get to do anything in a strong position,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D- Alaska).

An actual bill worth passing doesn’t look in the cards. In particular, Robert Byrd’s death makes things even harder on this front. Byrd opposed the Murkowski effort to block the EPA and acknowledged the existence of man-made climate change. He could afford to do so in coal-dependent West Virginia because he was Robert Byrd. A new entrant will in all likelihood not have the same will, even if he or she is a temporary placeholder.

So in that event, an effort of the kind that Begich is talking about makes some sense. It would make a lot more sense if the EPA could be relied upon to create its own carbon-regulation standards on schedule. A look at their work on clean air standards does not fill me with hope. Because if the Senate process fails, the EPA becomes the last line of defense. Nevertheless, given the near-certainty of compromised, ineffective, emissions cap-less climate legislation coming out of Congress, Democrats might as well do the right thing from the start and try to mass some political support.

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David Dayen

David Dayen