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Senate Energy Bill: Obama, Biden and Cabinet Go All-In on Another Top Priority

5 years ago
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Nothing says all-in like having the president, the vice president, three Cabinet secretaries, and two agency heads send the same "we care" message on the same day. It's all about achieving liftoff for the Senate energy and climate bill that's in the spotlight this week.

It may seem as if that part of President Obama's agenda, involving the controversial "cap and trade" system of curbing carbon emissions, has been nudged off to the side while he and Congress deal with everything from CEO bonuses to overhauling the health care system. The events of Tuesday are a reminder that for this administration, there's always room for one more top priority.

So, with Sens. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry launching three straight days of hearings on their Senate counterpart to a massive bill already passed by the House, Obama is sending up his secretaries of Energy, Transportation and Interior; the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Obama himself will be in Arcadia, Fla., to celebrate the grand opening of the nation's largest solar plant and announce $3.4 billion in stimulus grants for "smart grid" projects. White House energy and climate-change adviser Carol Browner called it the nation's "largest ever" investment in modernizing and upgrading the electrical grid to make it more efficient, cheaper for consumers and better able to tap into and transport renewable energy.

Vice President Joe Biden, covering a different angle, scheduled a trip to his hometown of Wilmington, Del., to announce that a shuttered General Motors plant would reopen to manufacture plug-in hybrid vehicles. The company taking it over is luxury carmaker Fisker Automotive of Irvine, Calif., according to multiple reports.

The push for the Senate bill comes amid signs of a changing, somewhat more hospitable landscape for legislation designed to reduce carbon emissions, curb global warming, and jumpstart new clean-energy industries.

Sure, the phrase cap-and-trade -- an overall cap on pollution, and polluters could buy and sell permits -- is anathema to conservatives. Right now it's being wielded often and effectively by Republican Bob McDonnell against Democrat Creigh Deeds in their race for Virginia governor.

On the other hand, the House did pass a cap-and-trade bill. Polluting industries were at the table and won transition protections. A Virginian, Rep. Rick Boucher, negotiated favorable terms for the coal industry. And while it is too soon to tell how members who voted for it will fare in next year's elections, a Roanoke TV station refused to run a TV ad against Rep. Tom Perriello that used inflated cost estimates unrelated to the actual House bill.

More broadly, veterans and the defense establishment are making the case that over-dependence on oil and global warming itself are threats to U.S. national security. Senators from natural-gas states are lobbying for their fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead with carbon regulations that are far less flexible than a cap-and-trade system would be.

And last but not least, as succinctly put to me by Clean Energy Works spokesman Josh Dorner, "The opposition is in disarray." It's a reference to the high-profile string of businesses quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to protest their opposition to climate-change legislation.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is tracking chamber developments here. The dropouts to date are Apple, Exelon, PNM Resources (New Mexico), Pacific Gas & Electric, Public Service Enterprise Group (New Jersey), Levi Strauss & Co, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Mohawk Paper. NRG Energy declined to join in the first place, and Nike dropped off the board of directors. Duke Energy Corp. left the National Association of Manufacturers over similar concerns.

MoveOn.org has seized the moment to pressure several other huge companies to leave through call-in campaigns. The group has also received nearly 1,000 photo petitions of people posing next to their Toyotas, asking Toyota to quit the chamber. "Toyota has for years marketed itself as a green company. If you're really green, you shouldn't be funding lobbying against climate legislation," Steven Biel, MoveOn's clean-energy campaign director, told me. The petitions will be delivered to Toyota headquarters in New York, he said, probably next week.

Toyota and the other companies are unlikely to stage a mass exodus from the chamber, but the split in the business community is real. For instance, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs representing 12 million employees and $5 trillion in annual revenue, is trying to shape the energy bill to its liking and doesn't question its underlying premise. "The CEOs of Business Roundtable have long recognized the reality of climate change. In fact, we were the first broad-based business organization to publicly acknowledge this global challenge and commit to combating it through collective action," Roundtable president John Castellani said in a conference call last week.

Chamber officials, by contrast, oppose EPA and congressional action to limit carbon emissions and continue to question the science of climate change. One official, William Kovacs, said climate change science should have to prove itself like evolution did in the Scopes trial. President and CEO Tom Donohue, in an interview with Politico, asked "Is the science right? Is science not right? I don't know."

The Chamber of Commerce is enduring blowback this month not just on its climate change stance but also on its claim to represent 3 million companies. It's more like 200,000, Mother Jones reported. And it looks like Congress is going to pass a health reform bill, which the Chamber also opposes. Nor does the group like a new agency proposed to protect consumers against fraudulent financial products.

The business group still has enough clout to get a decent speaker for its board of directors meeting Nov. 4. That would be Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. But it's pretty clear that this isn't destined to be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's golden era. Tune in right here Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time for the Senate climate bill kickoff.
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