After Banking Reform, Energy Still Sits on Ice

From sound policy to gimmicks. The prospect of an energy bill making its way to the floor of the Senate has gone from almost a sure thing to life support over the past two weeks as Democratic leaders have scrambled to fill in their calendar of legislative priorities. After health care, financial reform was the likely successor with energy presumed to follow, but the wild-card issue of immigration seemingly jumped the queue after party leaders did a calculus of what they needed to accomplish to fortify support before the November elections, and after Arizona's governor signed an immigration law last week that activists as well as some lawmakers think could unfairly lead to racial profiling.

As my colleague Howard Fineman reported yesterday, sources say that immigration is now a long shot, and probably not even possible this year. But that raises the question: what about energy?

A bipartisan coterie of Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman has been crafting a measure for months, promised to be unveiled this month and, with Graham's ability to persuade his Republican colleagues, passed with a bipartisan vote shortly after.

But even now, when the debate over financial regulations is wrapping up, that's looking to be less than likely. That's curious considering that reducing America's oil imports while investing in renewable energy to cut back the nation's carbon emissions used to be almost a no-brainer, even a win-win (after cap-and-trade was deemed all but dead in the Senate earlier this year). It used to be a strong argument and, pending Graham didn't jump ship mid-negotiation, pretty much a slam-dunk for lawmakers who like to create jobs and the administration, which had promises to keep to environmentalists before November.

Yet that evidence has broken down, due in part to the shuffling of legislative priorities—but also, perhaps, a symptom of the arduousness of long-term thinking required to craft the future of America's energy landscape, and the earth. Even despite the usual climate deniers like Sen. James Inhofe, the measure has lost support. The evidence is in a media event on the Hill today, where a group of activists and veterans will deliver to Senator Kerry's office an "Iran Oil Revenue Counter" to tally the amount of money—$100 million a day, according to their calculations—that goes to Iran daily because of America's insatiable appetite for oil. "The tally was started today to count the cost of delaying passage of comprehensive energy and climate legislation in the Senate," the group said in a statement. But that in itself is revealing in how it reframes the debate. The formerly sound argument for clean and domestic energy is now being reframed to vilify the common enemy du jour, Iran.

It might work, but it's a stretch. And perhaps it also shows a hint of desperation among the leaders and activists, both currently seeing their prospects dissolve as quickly as dollars on their way to Iran.