BYO Energy Bill

Everyone knows the legislative process is long. But even in Washington, no one knew the process to pass an energy bill would take this long. It’s been almost a year since the House approved a cap-and-trade measure that addressed greenhouse-gas-emissions cuts and incentives for renewable energy. In that time, the Senate has submitted six drafts of its version to match, all of which were quickly pronounced dead.

Yet Capitol Hill is still oozing optimism that an energy bill is possible, even inevitable, within the next few months. Why? The gulf spill certainly helps sway opinion toward alternative fuels. As does the deepening oil dependence on unfriendly countries. But politically speaking, energy is the rare political issue with room for both parties to claim victory. It’s simply a matter of finding the sweet spot: the perfect equation of old and new energy solutions to bring 60 votes together.

The method is simple. Seeing the political window for a comprehensive energy bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to legislate the old-fashioned way: by crafting a bill around other people’s ideas, especially his critics, so that by the time it’s done, the measure will be almost certain to pass. Last week, in a letter to committee chairmen, Reid went culling for suggestions. “I would ask that you provide any recommendations or report legislation, if desired, in your Committee's jurisdiction, before the Fourth of July recess to address the challenges that I have laid out above so it can be incorporated into a comprehensive clean energy bill for consideration during the July work period,” Reid wrote. According to a senior leadership aide, the timing is firm. “The aim is to bring this to floor before the August recess.”

It all depends on whether the Republicans pitch in a few votes. Democrats alone can’t hit 60, especially since West Virginia Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd have vowed to oppose anything reflecting poorly on coal. But there’s also a clear advantage for the Republicans to get out in front of energy in a way that allows them some ownership. Another political defeat after health care (and the impending financial-regulation compromise) before the midterm elections could be crushing for the GOP, which started the year poised to come close to taking the majority in both houses, yet has since faltered. Addressing the nation’s oil dependence, as well as spurring innovation in tech sectors, could be a huge job creator and a boon to industry. The Deepwater Horizon spill complicates things. Standing against energy reform would make GOP senators appear satisfied with the status quo—oil spills and all. “Given the event in the gulf, the GOP can’t be Mr. No on energy anymore,” says Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy, an arm of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “They need to be for something.”

The winning recipe will be a closely guarded secret until it’s released by Reid’s office next month. But there are clues of what it will include. The lowest-hanging fruit is energy efficiency, which everyone can agree on. Electrification for transportation sectors nips oil dependence in the bud. A bipartisan coterie led by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have crafted a renewable energy standard that encourages growth of sustainable energies. And then the kicker. Cap-and-trade has been dead for months, but Reid is likely to include a federal cap for just the top polluters—namely, utilities—that most members would get behind.

Will it be enough? Environmental groups have already shaken their heads at anything less than cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. (They'll probably be lucky to get 8 percent). To keep folks like Murkowski on board, the bill will also include some new drilling, with qualifications for new safety measures (and potentially new guidelines for the Minerals Management Service). But it may be the best the chamber can produce right now. Republicans muse privately that it could be inevitable. “If [the Democrats] strip out the broad emissions cap, our backs will be to the wall,” says a senior Republican staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Most of the action is on the Hill, not at the White House, which has been curiously quiet. In his first Oval Office address Tuesday night, President Obama is expected to use the gulf incident to underscore the import of passing an energy bill now, and not pushing it off any longer. The administration was handed a victory last week when a Murkowski-led resolution failed to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Yet a real victory would be Congress taking the reins on energy and climate in a way that would appease Obama’s green supporters. Last week chief of staff Rahm Emanuel endorsed the Senate's pot-luck method of collecting ideas. "There's enough in each [bill]," he told The New York Times, for "a serious and comprehensive energy bill. And you can do it this year."

There’s reason to believe he’s right: collaboration has worked before. When Republicans controlled the Senate in 2005, the chamber passed the Energy Policy Act. When Democrats took control two years later, the Energy Independence and Security Act was approved. Both sailed through with more than 65 votes.