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White House to hold bipartisan talks with senators on energy reform

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Obama invites top senators from both parties to White House talks on energy reform
  • Strategy is similar to health care summit in February that preceded final push of health care reform legislation
  • Democrats say Gulf oil disaster provides impetus for energy reform now
  • Republicans oppose setting price for carbon emissions, saying it would increase energy costs

Washington (CNN) -- In a strategy similar to the endgame on health care reform, President Barack Obama will convene top senators from both parties at the White House on Wednesday to try to reach a deal on an energy reform bill.

Like the health care summit earlier this year that emboldened Democrats to push through a Senate bill with no Republican support, the energy talks are portrayed by the White House as a chance for all participants to pitch their best ideas.

However, sharp differences between the two parties are evident, as well as some infighting among Democrats over what kind of final proposal would have a realistic chance of getting the 60 Senate votes needed to pass.

Such a push on a topic as pervasive and political and energy policy would be ill-advised in an election year, but Democrats want to build on public rage over the Gulf oil disaster to try to pass a bill.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who sits with the Democratic caucus, told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that he believes an energy bill "does have a chance" this year.

"There are about 50 senators who want to vote for a strong, comprehensive energy bill that puts a price on carbon pollution," Lieberman said. "There are about 30 who are set against it and there are 20 undecided. You've got to get to 60 to pass anything in the Senate. We need half of the undecided and we can do it."

Lieberman added that he hoped the Gulf oil spill "will motivate us to do it, because the less we depend on oil, the less chance there is of another environmental disaster like this."

Obama made a similar argument in his address to the nation on the oil spill last week, but Republicans say that Democrats are trying to exploit the disaster to push through policies that they say will increase energy costs and harm job creation.

"They never missed an opportunity to seize on a crisis to turn to the far left to-do list," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on "FOX News Sunday." "And this has been a big item on the far left to-do list, a national energy tax. Mark my words, that is precisely what they intend to do, seize on the crisis in the Gulf to try to pass this."

The House has passed a comprehensive energy bill that includes a so-called "cap-and-trade" system, in which a price is set for greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and polluters can obtain and trade credits for emissions over a set threshold.

Traditional energy industries such as oil and coal producers oppose cap-and-trade, but supporters say it is the best way to start to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions by the United States, the world's largest emitter per capita.

Lieberman expressed openness to a compromise plan from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that would impose a carbon emissions cap only on the energy utilities across the country.

However, he continued to call for economy-wide cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, saying it would "create an incentive for hundreds of billions of dollars of private capital to be invested in energy sources and systems that don't put carbon into the atmosphere -- like solar and wind and biomass and nuclear."

"So we need to put a price on carbon to let the private sector create the jobs and the energy industries we need," Lieberman said.

Appearing on the ABC program "This Week," Emanuel listed Obama's three main goals for energy legislation: reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, making key investments in clean energy technology and dealing "fundamentally with the environmental degradation that happens from carbon pollution."

"Senators from both parties with an array of ideas are coming to the table," Emanuel said of Wednesday's meeting, sounding like Obama did when he announced the health care summit that brought together top congressional Democrats and Republicans in February.

While no agreement came from the health care meeting, it demonstrated the intractable differences between the parties and led to Democrats moving forward on their own by using a legislative procedure for budget bills known as reconciliation to avoid a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

This time, reconciliation may not be an option, forcing the 59-member Senate Democratic caucus to get at least one Republican to join it in to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster attempt.

Either way, McConnell predicted the Democrats will push for an energy bill including some kind of cap-and-trade system after Congress returns from its Fourth of July holiday.

CNN's Martina Stewart and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.