Senators to White House with Energy Agenda Unclear

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(Washington, DC - Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation)  Nearly a quarter of the United States Senate is expected at the White House this morning to meet with President Obama on energy and climate legislation, though the form that legislation will take--and whether it will have the votes to pass--is very much in doubt.

Twenty-three senators from both parties, as well as Independents, are due to meet with Obama shortly before 11 AM. While broad energy legislation is the main topic, the fate of global warming legislation in the form of carbon regulation hangs in the balance. That balance may include no direct attempts to control carbon emissions in the transportation sector.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), has said he intends to take up energy legislation in July. The leading proposal right now is a comprehensive bill authored by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) that pushes an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to target climate change.

Here's the problem: the cap-and-trade part of "'Kerry-Lieberman" does not have the 60 votes it needs in the Senate. Reid has praised Kerry-Lieberman but has not committed to putting it on the Senate floor. Instead, he plans to have his staff spend the upcoming Fourth of July recess stitching together an energy and climate bill designed to grab the votes it needs to pass.

The energy bill is widely expected to contain changes to drilling laws, including a regulatory crackdown on deep water drilling, an increase or removal of caps on liability for oil companies that spill and reform of the Minerals Management Service (MMS). It is also likely to contain measures promoting renewable energy production, investing in "green" technology, and promoting electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

But how--or if--the bill seeks to control carbon is in doubt. Senators have said in recent days they're considering carbon curbs that would apply to utilities only, leaving out transportation, manufacturing or other sectors.

Lieberman, an advocate of economy-wide cap-and-trade, said in an interview with Transportation Nation late last week that he is open to a utilities-only approach. "It's not my first choice," he conceded.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is busy drafting a utilities-only carbon bill, according the The Hill newspaper. Bingaman told the paper he has not decided whether or not he will push to get the bill on the floor. Other lawmakers are working on similar approaches.

Reid has said he will decide on the makeup of the overall bill over the July Fourth break. Several senators say they hope today to get a clear picture from President Obama on what he'll support and how hard he'll try to push for broader carbon controls this year.