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Senate Aims To Pass Energy Bill Before Recess

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The House of Representatives has adjourned for a six-week summer recess, and the Senate is set to do the same later this week. But before that happens, Democrats have an ambitious to-do list -- including taking up an energy bill that was unveiled last week. The scaled-back proposal doesn't contain any provisions on climate change.

The Senate is aiming to get Elena Kagan confirmed to the Supreme Court and pass a long-stalled bill to help small businesses create jobs. What's more, they also want to take up an energy bill that was unveiled last week.

It's been more than a year since the House narrowly passed its energy bill. That was a tough vote for a lot of Democrats because the bill included curbs on carbon emissions, under a system known as cap and trade, which environmentalists love but business and industry hate.

The hope and expectation of those Democrats was that the Senate would redeem their vote by passing the same kind of comprehensive energy bill.

But that was not the bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled a few days ago. He admitted that his scaled-back proposal contained not one provision on climate change, which he said would not have the votes to pass.

"This bill is not our first choice but it's our first step," Reid said. "We need, as you know, to have a broader bill; we needed Republican support."

Reid's energy-only bill has tepid support from environmentalists.

The Wilderness Society's Bill Meadows, who was at the rollout, said he was "hugely disappointed" that the measure did nothing to cut carbon emissions.

"We'd love to have more, but it's simply not possible with the political arena that we're working in today," Meadows said.

Others reacted more angrily. That same day, Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse went to the Senate floor and chided his leadership for taking a pass on climate change legislation.

"If there's value in having a fight when you can't win, my God, there's value in having a fight when you can," Whitehouse said. "And I think it was worth trying."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Reid's energy proposal as nothing more than a liberal wish list.

"It's perfectly obvious that Democrats are doing their best to keep us from passing a serious energy bill before the August recess," McConnell said.

When asked why he was bringing up an energy bill only days before the Senate is to leave town, Reid blamed McConnell and his fellow Republicans.

"They've stalled everything the rest of the year -- when else would I bring it up?" Reid asked. "Do they want to never bring it up? That's the answer. The answer is yes. We have to bring it sometime."

The bill does have a few noncontroversial measures promoting energy-efficient homes and natural gas-powered trucks. Far more divisive, though, is its proposal to do away with the current $75 million liability limit for firms that cause disasters such as the BP blowout in the Gulf.

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, who crafted the measure, says it would remove all limits for how much those firms can be sued.

"It's a simple, common-sense proposition, the proposition that we all learned while we were growing up -- when you mess up, you clean up," Menendez said. "You're responsible for what you do. When a company is perfectly happy to make billions of dollars taking a risky activity in public waters, then it needs to be perfectly comfortable with paying for any and all economic damages if and when something goes horribly wrong."

Republicans -- as well as some Democrats -- say it's a bad idea to have unlimited liability for oil disasters. They say only the biggest oil companies have the assets to take on such risk, while small and medium-sized firms would be shut out.

"That's one of those key provisions that we've got to be able to have discussion on it," said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. "Because if the answer for them [Democrats] is no liability and no amendments to this, I think it's going to be very difficult to reach a compromise."

That could mean the energy bill is heading nowhere this week -- except, perhaps, to become another campaign issue for both sides in this fall's elections.

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