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Sources say White House meeting on Senate energy bill postponed

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Sources say White House meeting with senators on energy reform bill postponed
  • President Obama calls on Senate to act on energy reform legislation
  • Top Senate Democrat says White House needs to lead the way on shaping energy bill
  • Democrats say Gulf oil disaster provides impetus for energy reform now, while Republicans oppose setting price for carbon emissions

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama called Tuesday for the Senate to "stand up and move forward" on the issue in the aftermath of the Gulf oil disaster.

"This has to be a wake-up call to the country, that we are prepared and ready to move forward on a new energy strategy that the American people desperately want but for which there has been insufficient political will," Obama told reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the White House.

However, two Senate leadership aides told CNN later Tuesday that the White House abruptly postponed a planned meeting Wednesday with senators from both parties to try to reach agreement on a proposal that can pass the Senate. The Senate aides, one from each party, did not know why the meeting was called off.

The White House had portrayed the talks as a chance for all participants to pitch their best ideas, similar to the health care summit earlier this year that emboldened Democrats to push through a Senate bill with no Republican support.

However, sharp differences between the two parties are evident, as well as some infighting among Democrats over what kind of final proposal would have a realistic chance of getting the 60 Senate votes needed to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday it was up to Obama to put his support behind a specific proposal.

"I think it's pretty clear we have to do something; the question is, what do we do?" Reid, D-Nevada, told reporters. "And a lot of that depends on what the White House is going to do to help us get something done."

Video: Lieberman: Energy reform 'has a chance'

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC that Obama's three main goals for energy legislation were reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, making key investments in clean energy technology, and dealing "fundamentally with the environmental degradation that happens from carbon pollution."

"Senators from both parties with an array of ideas are coming to the table," Emanuel said of Wednesday's meeting, sounding like Obama did when he announced the health care summit that brought together top congressional Democrats and Republicans in February.

This time, announced participants were only from the Senate, including Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, the co-sponsors of a comprehensive proposal that would reshape the U.S. energy industry. Others who were to take part in the postponed meeting included Democratic senators Barbara Boxer of California and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, along with Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

The House already has passed its own sweeping energy bill that includes a so-called "cap-and-trade" system, in which a price is set for greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and polluters can obtain and trade credits for emissions over a set threshold.

The Senate proposal by Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who sits with the Democratic caucus, also would set a price for emissions as part of an emissions-trading system.

Such a push on a topic as pervasive and political as energy policy would seem ill-advised in an election year, but Democrats want to build on public rage over the Gulf oil disaster to try to pass a bill before congressional mid-term elections in November could reduce their majorities in both chambers.

"The Senate has an opportunity before the August recess and the elections to stand up and move forward on something that could have enormous" benefits for generations, Obama said Tuesday, adding: "If we get energy right, an awful lot of things can happen as a consequence."

Lieberman told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that he believes an energy bill "does have a chance" this year.

"There are about 50 senators who want to vote for a strong, comprehensive energy bill that puts a price on carbon pollution," Lieberman said. "There are about 30 who are set against it and there are 20 undecided. You've got to get to 60 to pass anything in the Senate. We need half of the undecided and we can do it."

Lieberman added that he hoped the Gulf oil spill "will motivate us to do it, because the less we depend on oil, the less chance there is of another environmental disaster like this."

Obama made a similar argument in his address to the nation on the oil spill last week, but Republicans say that Democrats are trying to exploit the disaster to push through policies that they say will increase energy costs and harm job creation.

"They never missed an opportunity to seize on a crisis to turn to the far left to-do list," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on "FOX News Sunday." "And this has been a big item on the far left to-do list, a national energy tax. Mark my words, that is precisely what they intend to do, seize on the crisis in the Gulf to try to pass this."

Murkowski, a strong proponent of the oil industry that flourishes in her home state, told CNN on Sunday that a cap-and-trade provision lacks enough support to pass in the Senate.

"I don't think that there is the political ability to put a price on carbon" at this time, Murkowski said. Instead, she backs an alternative that excludes the cap-and-trade provision.

"Let's build on the art of the possible, instead of requiring, as the president seems to want to do, that we have to have a cap-and-trade piece or it isn't comprehensive," Murkowski said.

Traditional energy industries such as oil and coal producers oppose cap-and-trade, saying it would increase costs and harm the economy, while supporters of cap-and-trade say it is the best way to start to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions by the United States, the world's largest emitter per capita.

Lieberman expressed openness to a compromise plan from Emanuel that would impose a carbon emissions cap only on the energy utilities across the country.

However, he continued to call for economy-wide cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, saying it would "create an incentive for hundreds of billions of dollars of private capital to be invested in energy sources and systems that don't put carbon into the atmosphere -- like solar and wind and biomass and nuclear."

"So we need to put a price on carbon to let the private sector create the jobs and the energy industries we need," Lieberman said.

The three leading Senate proposals include:

-- the aggressive measure by Kerry and Lieberman 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 Collins and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; and,

-- 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.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama's preference was the approach taken in the Kerry-Lieberman bill.

CNN's Martina Stewart, Evan Glass, Ted Barrett and Tom Cohen contributed to this report