WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama may not yet have persuaded Congress to approve a sweeping new energy bill, but as Senate Democrats meet behind closed doors Thursday to hammer out a list of proposals, he has clearly rekindled the debate.
In a sign of the president's engagement on a goal that was all but given up for dead before oil started gushing in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama summoned eight senators to the White House next week for broad, bipartisan talk about the legislative path forward.
Obama also sat down with Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who has been a swing vote on several issues this year, following the president's morning meeting with BP executives Wednesday at the White House.
Much like development of the massive health care bill, moving major energy legislation is likely to be a difficult and contentious process, although crammed into a shorter time frame.
But with midterm elections looming, some advocates and congressional Democrats say Obama must become engaged quickly and set clear priorities.
"He needs to make it clear that this has to be a bold and comprehensive plan," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who could possibly support a far-reaching bill that would set a price on carbon, which is essentially a tax on those industries that emit greenhouse gases scientists believe are causing climate change.
Obama's role during the health care debate frustrated lawmakers because he hesitated to spell out his preference on make-or-break provisions -- such as whether the bill would include a public option.
Even with an all-out administrative effort, congressional action on comprehensive energy legislation remains tough politically, even as the worst oil spill in the nation's history allows Obama to focus public attention on the underlying policy issues.
"To push right now is difficult because the Congress has been through the ringer on health care," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who prefers a more scaled-back bill that does not include a carbon pricing mechanism.
Obama spoke only in general terms this week during his prime-time speech on the Gulf spill, calling on Congress to "embark on a national mission" -- much like putting a man on the moon or the industrial effort of World War II -- to develop cleaner energy sources that can reduce the nation's dependence on oil.
"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," Obama said.
Obama pointed to House passage last year of sweeping energy bill that includes the cap-and-trade system -- also known as carbon pricing -- which sets a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by utility, manufacturing and transportation industries, and essentially taxes those entities that exceed the specified limits.
A similar Senate measure is unlikely to win the 60 votes needed for passage, and some senators prefer to focus on energy-efficiency provisions and efforts to boost energy from wind, solar and other renewable sources. Others suggest a slimmed-back carbon-pricing system only on the utility industry.
Democrats face regional differences over energy policy as well as Republican opposition.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate have repeatedly criticized the president for capitalizing on the devastation in the Gulf to advance his agenda for cap-and-trade legislation, which they often deride as "cap-and-tax."
Brown has said he would be unwilling to support such a system during the economic downturn, and suggested going after "low-hanging fruit" during the meeting with Obama.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is among several Republican senators invited to the bipartisan meeting at the White House next week, said Obama is trying to put clean energy on the agenda, but "whether he follows through beyond the speech remains to be seen."
Showing the difficulty Obama faces in bringing even his own party to major energy reform, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is among several Democratic lawmakers who do not see the connection between the spill in the Gulf and the need for a carbon pricing system.
"I don't know that it has much to do with the spill -- other than the spill is from oil," Nelson said.
The White House insists the president "is committed to finding the votes for comprehensive energy legislation this year," an aide said.
Yet what exactly that legislation looks like as the Senate begins crafting its bill remains to be seen.
"He's a realist," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "He doesn't want to have nothing."
(Staff writer Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.)
(c) 2010, Tribune Co.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.