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Senate Democrats struggle with climate change legislation

By Evan Glass, CNN Congressional Producer
  • Senate Dems seize on Gulf disaster to press climate-change, energy legislation
  • Various legislative proposals competing for attention, support
  • Obama invites senators from both parties to White House to talk comprehensive legislation

Washington (CNN) -- Senate Democrats Thursday seized on the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as a reason to pass climate-change and energy legislation, but internal policy differences will not be easy to overcome and may also leave many disheartened.

Members of the Democratic caucus met behind closed doors to discuss various legislative proposals, telling reporters afterward that no single vision has emerged as the way forward. The difficulty is that any policy change needs 60 votes to be approved in the Senate.

"One of the many lessons of the BP disaster is we can't afford to continue business as usual," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after the meeting. Reid, of Nevada, expressed his goal of voting on one bill that addresses both the BP spill and concerns about global warming before recessing in August, adding that "stalling for political purposes" is unacceptable.

But the strategy ahead for Democrats is muddled with competing ideas.

The three leading proposals discussed include:

--an aggressive measure by Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut, that would cap carbon emissions and create a system for trading carbon credits;

--a scaled-down version of "cap and trade" that would directly refund revenues raised under the program back to consumers, being offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine;

--and a measure already approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that would mandate increases in alternative energy sources and open new areas of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

"I think there is a possibility there could be some consensus on how to move forward, but we've got a lot more to discuss," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, who supports a tax on carbon emissions but is wary of any legislation that has an adverse economic impact on her constituents.

Landrieu is the only Senate Democrat from an oil and gas producing state along the Gulf of Mexico.

"While our environment is also important, it is also the place where we make our living... And there are many jobs at risk along the Gulf Coast as we transition to a future less dependent on fossil fuels," she said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia is another Democrat who believes the path ahead needs to be taken judiciously, telling CNN that he is concerned about the impact that any legislation might have on his coal-producing state.

Given the need for a bipartisan approach, President Barack Obama has invited a number of Senate Republicans and Democrats to the White House next Wednesday to discuss which ideas should be included in the comprehensive legislation. And despite the lack of consensus currently among Democrats, the White House seems to have a preferred route.

"I think it is safe to say that the president's direction on energy is very similar to the direction to the direction that is in the Kerry-Lieberman bill and that the president feels strongly that ... including a component to deal with climate is important

in comprehensive energy reform," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday.

Even so, the senatorial math may force a compromise that is more palatable to Democrats from energy-producing states and moderate Republicans. That prospect angers some of the most liberal members who are arguing for strong environmental regulations to curb global warming.

"Do we have 60 votes to come up with strong global warming legislation? No. I think that's a tragedy," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont. "And why they are rejecting the scientific views of virtually the entire world's community and playing politics with this when the future of the planet is at stake, I just don't understand."