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Don’t Expect Big Energy Bills in the Lame Duck Session

So, here are the three bills that Harry Reid filed for cloture on last night, which will be the first three taken up in the lame duck session:

Promoting Natural Gas & Electric Vehicles Act of 2010 (S. 3815)
Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772)
FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510)

Tom Coburn has been blocking unanimous consent of the food safety bill, so the Senate plans to go around him. The Paycheck Fairness Act, a counterpoint to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that passed into law at the beginning of the President’s term, would make class-action lawsuits against employers based on gender-based pay discrimination easier.

And then there’s that natural gas and electric vehicles bill, which must be music to the ears of T.Boone Pickens. Originally, this was part of Harry Reid’s stripped-down energy bill, which he failed to bring up for a vote. Now, the stripped-down bill has been stripped down even more. Just the natural gas and electric vehicles piece remains, with incentives to encourage these types of transportation options. That should put the final nail in the coffin on any hopes for a major energy bill in the lame duck.

Senate Democratic leaders are backing away from plans to tackle any type of energy legislation during the upcoming lame duck session, including a renewable electricity standard and a response to the BP oil spill.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday that the legislative agenda is quickly filling up for the post-election session, with priority going first to the START arms reduction treaty with Russia, tax cuts and the fiscal year 2011 omnibus spending bill.

“I think it’s unlikely we’ll have time to take up a bill that’s controversial, that would take a longer period of time,” Durbin said when asked about the renewable electricity standard, or RES. “Already, there are at least three in the queue. It’s going to be difficult.”

The natural gas/EV bill must be seen as noncontroversial enough to pass quickly, once cloture is scaled. But anything else would require the kind of debate that the Senate probably doesn’t have the time for. Even the meager renewable energy standard, with its four Republican co-sponsors, doesn’t look to have the necessary support. And I can’t see that changing after the elections.

The President’s new idea is to break energy and climate legislation into chunks, and key Senators welcomed this approach yesterday. But the “chunks” likely to have the support to move through Congress will probably look more like the natural gas/EV bill than a cap and trade system or renewable energy standard. Glenn Hurowitz has some potentially decent ideas for the form of those chunks – “tax credits for carbon sequestration, black carbon, F-gases, and international finance” (read the article for more information) – but I’d be very surprised to see them on the floor of Congress any time soon.

And so we continue, with the United States formerly a world leader in clean energy innovation and investment but now ceding the title to China. Not to get all Tom Friedman-y, but this is a shame.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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