Even a watered-down energy bill can’t move

EVEN A WATERED-DOWN ENERGY BILL CAN’T MOVE…. A couple of weeks ago, Senate Democratic leaders delivered the bad news — a meaningful energy/climate package couldn’t overcome Republican obstructionism. Left with no choice, the majority would pursue a weaker, watered down bill, including “green” jobs, new oil company regulations, and Home Star (the program formerly known as Cash for Caulkers).

Those who take policy seriously were deeply disappointed, but the Senate has to pass something, no matter how narrow, and if this is the only bill that can be approved in our broken legislative system, so be it.

Except, the votes for the bill that’s already been stripped of its most important elements, just to ensure its passage, still can’t pass.

Despite months of public outrage over the massive BP oil spill, frustrated Democratic Senate leaders abandoned their effort Tuesday to pass spill-related legislation before leaving for their summer recess later this week.

“That kind of bill, folks, ought to pass 100 to nothing, but it’s not,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a leader on energy legislation.

He and other Democrats had sought to raise liability limits on oil companies drilling in U.S. waters and provide incentives for consumers to make their homes and vehicles more energy efficient.

The bill had seemed like a popular response to what’s generally regarded as the year’s biggest single news event, but now won’t be considered before the Senate returns in mid-September at the earliest.

“It’s clear that Republicans remain determined to stand in the way of everything,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters.

What’s the problem? The GOP has a few complaints, but the biggest is over the liability cap. Existing law places a $75 million cap on oil companies responsible for offshore spills. Most Democrats want to lift the cap, or at least raise it far above the status quo. Republicans, joined by two Democrats friendly with the oil industry — Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Alaska’s Mark Begich — balked.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who’s championed the liability cap, tried to work out a compromise. It didn’t come together.

So, now that the easy-to-pass version is no longer easy to pass, what happens? Dems’ goal was to move the bill to the floor this week, before the recess. Yesterday’s announcement wasn’t necessarily the death of an energy bill, so much as the death of a quick energy bill. There was growing talk yesterday that the issue may not even come to the floor until a post-election lame-duck session.

There are some hopes that environmentalists can use the month-long break to make the case to unsure senators, perhaps generating some new support. Stay tuned.

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