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Oil-State Rebellion

It wasn't Republicans who killed Reid's energy bill.

By Robert Costa  

August 04, 2010

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As the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak continues to evaporate in the Gulf of Mexico, the Democrats' chances of using it to grease the passage of a new energy bill are evaporating, too.

Last week, House and Senate Democratic leaders rolled out what Politico called their "big spill bills." The legislation, of course, was stuffed with nearly $15 billion in green goodies: new chokeholds on offshore drilling, cash-for-caulkers, and retrofitting for natural-gas trucks. "That kind of bill, folks, ought to pass, 100 to nothing," said Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.). Indeed, with the public still sour about the BP slop, Democrats thought they could pressure Republicans to come along. "If, after the worst oil spill in the history of the country, Republicans were to vote ‘no' against new offshore-drilling protections - can you imagine the ads?" asked one senior Democratic aide.

Republicans, and many Senate Democrats, can, but the prospect doesn't worry them as much as getting burned by overreaching on energy does. He blames Republicans, but it was growing unrest in his own caucus that forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) to yank his 400-page bill on Tuesday after having planned to hold a floor debate and votes on both the GOP and Democratic measures this week. Reid, in a complaint-laden presser, said he used "jujitsu and yoga" on Republicans, to no avail. In fact, it is Reid's own mangled dance that has left the Democrats' energy agenda shelved until the Senate is back in session after Labor Day.

Thank Mother Nature or the political gods for this momentary good fortune. Reid's strategy - to pass a heavy-handed anti-drilling bill encrusted with oil-spill politics - simply backfired. Oil-state Democrats, like Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), were aghast at the bill's hard line on businesses big and small - among other punitive measures, it eliminates the liability cap - and wondered aloud whether it went too far. "I wish that somebody would focus on helping the Gulf Coast instead of on destroying an industry," she said. Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) concurred. Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) also expressed misgivings.

"Originally this was going to be a cap-and-trade bill to match up with Waxman-Markey in the House," Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), the ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, tells National Review Online. "But they only have 34 votes - they're not even close. With this oil spill, they thought that they could turn things around and use it as an excuse to pass something with energy provisions thrown in, masquerading it as an innocuous bill."

"The truth is [Reid] saw the writing on the wall," adds Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), the ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee. "The majority leader didn't pull his bill because of Republican opposition, he pulled it because his fellow Democrats were deserting him, planning to vote against it and support the concepts of the Republican bill."

Robert Dillon, the GOP spokesman for the Energy Committee, tells NRO that instead of slapping on blinders and addressing the spill, Reid was committed to kowtowing to the Left and tacking on additional provisions. "Reid took things he could buy votes with and threw them in the bill," he says. "Instead of dealing with the spill in a bipartisan way, in a way that could have drawn broad support, he avoided a transparent process and clean debate."

Dillon adds that Reid's move to pull the bill owed more to politics than to GOP opposition. "This was a messaging bill [for Reid]," he says. "He never meant for it to pass or to get pass a cloture vote. The whole goal for the bill was to get Republicans to vote it down. It was only when Democrats began to peel off that he knew that spin would not work. His dog-and-pony show with the press happened because of his caucus."

"Deal with the Gulf," sighs Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), a member of both the Environment Committee and the Energy Committee. "Senator Reid is trying to tie bad legislation onto this." Democrats, he says, are correct to protest the elimination of a liability cap. "It's a legitimate concern," he says. If you take away a cap on damages, he says, "the rigs pick up and go away." So is there a reason Reid can't find a way to pass a slimmed-down, bipartisan spill bill? "I'm a surgeon," Barrasso muses, "I don't do psychoanalysis."

Despite Reid's stumbles, the Democrats' green agenda is far from dead. Though a cap-and-trade bill and other Kerry-led climate efforts have collapsed in recent months, Reid's bill, tinkered with and repainted with a fresh coat of green, could emerge again in September or, worse, in a lame-duck session this winter. Reid told Greenwire on Wednesday that "there's a chance we're going to bring a broader bill" to the floor once the summer heat fades. Landrieu and Begich, knowing this, are already busy hammering out a compromise on the liability cap to try to speed things up. The pair had a "very good discussion" on Tuesday, Begich told The Hill. "I think we are probably 95 percent there on the same page. We are just working out some language issues."

If such a deal is brokered, Reid may look to start maneuvering again in September. Having quashed the oil-state rebellion, he could, however, face another insurgency - this time at the hands of coal-state Democrats and others who object to his trying to frame burdensome environmental policy as something it's not. Such a ploy, Inhofe predicts, would be doomed from the start. "We've kind of developed a coalition" against that, he says. "While our motivations are not the same, [Democrats and Republicans] from the Midwest and coal country" are uniting. "New allies," he predicts, are ready to vote against any overcooked, punitive bill.

"They are trying to work out their master plan," Inhofe laughs. "But if the votes are not there before the recess, they surely won't be there after the recess." Besides, he says, "the American people are educated enough" about the Democrats' bill to put up a fuss.

In this economy, "jujitsu and yoga" can do only so much.

- Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. fellow at the National Review Institute.