Senate Drops All Pretense of Moving an Energy Bill

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First, cap-and-trade died. Then, the Kerry-Lieberman bill. Then, a renewable electricity standard and most other scraps of remaining energy reform policy. The dregs of an energy bill were folded into legislation responding to the oil spill that has now -- lo and behold! -- died.

Harry Reid announced today that he would not bring the spill bill to the floor for a vote before recess. The bill encountered hurdles surrounding the liability cap for oil companies that experienced spills and a last-minute push to regulate a controversial method of extracting natural gas. Republicans demanded a vote on an alternative spill bill they'd drafted, and Democrats were missing two key votes from Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich, neither of whom want to eliminate the liability cap altogether.

Reid had made clear that he would not accept amendments on the bill for fear that Republicans would tack on partisan initiatives -- including a bid to stall EPA regulations on carbon emissions that are set to begin in January -- and delay a vote. But without Landrieu, Begich, or a single Republican, Reid had no chance of reaching 60 votes to prevent a filibuster -- the only way to pass legislation in today's Senate.

With the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan a mandatory agenda item for Senate Dems before they leave for the August recess next week, Reid decided not to waste time voting on a doomed measure. Other than the obvious conclusion that the Senate is now virtually incapable of passing legislation of any kind, the demise of the spill bill signifies two things:

1) Reid might end up compromising on the liability cap. Landrieu and Begich have held their ground, and Democrats cannot move forward without them. The pre-recess schedule is too cramped to hash out a compromise at this point, but if the Senate takes up the legislation in September, Reid could decide to risk opening the bill to amendments if it is the only way to unite his caucus.

2) The renewable electricity standard could make a comeback. Right before the bill came to the floor, advocates launched a last-minute push to include an RES, claiming that a whip count had produced 60 votes for such a measure. Even a Republican, Kansas's Sam Brownback, was on board. Reid claimed the votes were not there and ended up ditching the RES. But if he does allow amendments in September, it would be the perfect opportunity to revive the measure. He'd have six weeks of recess to lobby key senators and could use the proposal as a way to pacify Democrats who make a fuss about compromising on the liability cap.

Both of these options, however, rely on the Senate devoting time to prolonged floor debate. After the return from recess, Reid will have only about four weeks to tackle his party's unfinished business, including the small business bill, the Bush tax cuts, and a war-funding bill. He may choose to forgo messy debate over oil legislation in order to focus on achievable goals that Democrats can tout in their re-election campaigns.  

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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