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Back to the drawing board in Washington

Yesterday marked the day that Senate Democrats decided to cut their loses by abandoning a year’s worth of work toward a comprehensive energy and climate bill. Today, it is not clear if even the very limited climate and energy bill touted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be presented before the summer recess.

What IS clear is that the Senate has failed to grab the baton passed to it from the House of Representatives. In doing so, they have passed on a prime opportunity to move the nation forward in our drive for a sustainable energy future.

Last June, H.R. 2454 (better known as the Waxman-Markey bill) passed with a single-digit margin in the House of Representatives. This comprehensive climate and energy bill includes key attributes including a renewable energy standard (RES) and a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade system that would regulation emissions from all stationary emitters (ex: power plants, petroleum refineries).

Since passing the responsibility on to their Senate counterparts, those who voted for Waxman-Markey have slowly seen their hopes for federal standards before the end of 2010 quickly fade. The force that pushed federal healthcare reform through Congress – a.k.a. President Obama’s political capital account – has been unable to grab hold in the climate and energy sphere.

After more than a year of debates and committee meetings in the Senate, the decision came through yesterday to dump any major energy and climate legislation from this year’s books. This decision has left Senate Democrats reeling and in apparent need of a strategic regrouping effort during the August recess.

Before then, Senator Harry Reid might still propose a small climate and energy bill (see my post yesterday). Rumors abound that the Senator has decided to add a renewable energy standard (RES) to the bill – if there is a bill, at all – though the Senator’s office denies these rumors.

This latest decision by Senate Democrats is another example of the partisan politics at play in Washington. The climate and energy debate draws straight down party lines, with only six Republicans sitting on the line:┬áSenators┬áSam Brownback of Kansas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. The remainder of the Senate’s republicans are firmly united against any legislation – a black monolith, firmly set in its path.

The frustration felt by the environmental community in response to news that Senate Democrats were dropping their efforts was expressed perhaps no more clearly than by David Bookbinder, former chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club (he resigned in May):

What we have is a year of totally wasted effort by environmental groups that were either unable to do even a fairly simple vote count or ones who simply went along with the prevailing ideology even though they knew that there wasn’t going to be a bill at the end of the process…I think those that knew that there wasn’t going to be a bill and went along with it anyway did so for fear of being seen as not supporting climate legislation, and it wasn’t palatable to them to tell the truth to their members and the public.

Other members of the environmental community wonder if this change could be a blessing, preventing the passage of watered-down legislation that would have been able to achieve the desired outcomes. According to Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, the Senate bill was not able to drum-up excitement in the base – a fundamental problem that could be rectified if Senate Democrats returned to the drawing board.

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