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Senate Democrats to pursue a smaller energy package

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats have decided to press ahead in the next two weeks with a scaled-back energy bill that limits carbon pollution by power plants but not by other industries in an effort to salvage the legislation before midterm elections.

After months of gridlock, the White House and Democratic leaders have concluded that the sweeping measure they once envisioned cannot pass, so they will try to get what they can rather than pass nothing at all. The developing plan is intended to appeal to enough Republicans to overcome a filibuster but could disappoint liberals who argue that more needs to be done.
"If not now, when?" said Sen. Harry M. Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, who plans to bring the compromise bill to the Senate floor next week. "We have to move to do something about our dependence on foreign oil. That’s what this legislation is all about."

Reid also presented it as a way to further stimulate the economy, saying, "This as I’ve indicated is a huge jobs bill."
The strategy of pushing forward with a more limited bill acknowledges the complicated politics in the Senate and the short time on the clock with elections approaching.

While the House last year passed a measure capping the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change across the economy, the White House and its Senate allies will push only to limit those from electric utilities, which are responsible for about a third of the emissions produced by the United States.

Such a measure would allow Obama to make a down payment on his larger goal.
"He’s always believed there should be an economywide solution but recognizes that may not be where we are," Carol M. Browner, the president’s energy and climate adviser, said in an interview. "Getting started is hugely important, and he’s willing to work with senators in that direction."

Passage would also give the president another legislative victory after the overhaul of the health care system passed in March and new regulations for Wall Street expected to pass this week. And House Democrats said it would be a relief for them to have at least something pass since they have been left trying to explain politically dicey votes for the broader cap.
It remains far from certain, however, that Obama and Reid can win passage even for the limited legislation. Most Republicans remain firm in their opposition to any cap on emissions, and six Democrats recently joined an effort by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to pass a resolution criticizing new Environmental Protection Agency rules relating to greenhouse gases.
"Senator Murkowski won’t support a utility cap-and-trade bill because it raises energy prices on Americans at a time when they are already struggling financially," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for the senator. "It’s a light-switch tax."
Moreover, the utility industry has expressed reservations or sought concessions, like pulling back on new pollution rules in other areas, something White House officials rejected last week at a meeting with industry representatives on Capitol Hill.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association "has consistently called for an economywide approach," said Tracy Warren, a group spokeswoman.

Some environmental advocates said they were resigned to the new approach. "Is it adequate to address the problem? No," said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate studies at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research organization. "Is it a good plan to start, given where we are with the calendar and politically? Yes."

By some calculations, the White House and Senate Democrats have only until the August recess to pass a meaningful energy bill this year. Few expect serious legislation to pass in the fall with members focusing on re-election campaigns.
Obama has been pushing for the legislation by meeting with senators and holding events to highlight clean-energy projects. He plans to fly to Holland, Mich., on Thursday for the opening of a plant manufacturing batteries for electric cars, financed in part by his stimulus program.

Several senators, including John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., are trying to fashion specific plans to draw enough votes across the aisle.

Reid outlined four main elements: responding to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, promoting greater energy efficiency, developing more clean-energy production and curbing power plant emissions.

He said he was prepared to incorporate a plan championed by T. Boone Pickens, the oil and gas executive, to sharply expand the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel in large vehicle fleets. The proposal, supported by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would provide tax breaks for natural-gas-powered vehicles and fueling stations.

"This legislation, it’s not all green stuff — you know, Sierra Club stuff," Reid said. "We’re importing 70 percent of the oil that we use. We have a need to change the paradigm in America. And that is, we need to have a move to renewable energy."

The White House and Senate Democratic leaders hope to appeal to several Republicans, like Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and George LeMieux of Florida.

Democrats said that if the utility cap was drawn narrowly enough, they hoped to win over Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped draft the initial plan by Kerry and Lieberman before withdrawing his support.

But Democratic aides conceded that they could lose even more Democrats from coal-producing states. If the utility cap fails to win the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, the White House and Senate Democrats will be faced with a tough choice: go ahead with the rest of the bill or pull the whole thing.

Some Democratic senators worry that an energy-only bill investing in alternative-energy development without any limits on carbon emissions effectively would give away the popular policy items necessary for any eventual deal.

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