WASHINGTON Several U.S. Senate Democrats, including a top leader, on Wednesday questioned whether it would be possible to vote on a climate change bill this year, especially with healthcare reform eating up so much of the lawmakers' time.
"It's a difficult schedule" with many members already "anxious" about healthcare reform, Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, told Reuters when asked about prospects this year for a bill to cap emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
President Barack Obama is engaged in the toughest fight of his presidency in trying to win passage of expanded healthcare. Obama also has called on Congress to approve legislation this year to control climate change by reducing pollutants from utilities, oil refineries and factories.
Besides the need to pass the complex healthcare bill this year, which Durbin said was "first in the queue," he also noted the need to tackle legislation imposing stricter rules on the U.S. financial industry.
Durbin said it was unclear whether the climate bill or financial industry reform would be a higher priority in 2009.
With most Senate Republicans expected to oppose a climate change bill in the 100-member Senate, nearly all of the 60 seats controlled by Democrats would have to line up in favor of the legislation for it to clear procedural hurdles.
But several other Democrats besides Durbin, representing a range of interests, on Wednesday also were skeptical.
Many of them are moderates who instead want the Senate to simply pass an energy bill awaiting floor debate. That bill would require utilities to generate more electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, while also allowing expanded oil and gas drilling off Florida's Gulf coast.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has talked about coupling the energy bill with the more sweeping "cap and trade" climate legislation that still has not been unveiled.
But one moderate Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, told Reuters: "We have enough on our plate at the moment (with the fight over healthcare reform). It's questionable to open another front." Instead, Nelson said the energy bill could be passed as a stand-alone bill, calling it "far less controversial" and "necessary."
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, where concerns run strong over greater factory job losses if more expensive alternative fuels are required, told reporters that "there's no bill" that will pass the Senate unless protections against cheaper foreign goods are included.
The House-passed climate change bill does contain some border adjustment provisions to help energy-intensive industries in the United States, such as steel, cement, paper and glass companies, compete against foreign firms that may not be subject to stringent climate controls.
But some countries have raised concerns about trade protections in a climate bill and it's not clear yet how senators drafting the legislation will handle this issue.
"We're not real close" to working it out, Brown said.
"People are so focused on healthcare, there haven't been a lot of discussions," on the climate bill worries, Brown added.
Meanwhile, Senator Blanche Lincoln, who is taking over the chairmanship of the influential Senate Agriculture Committee, on Wednesday fretted climate change legislation would hurt farm profitability through higher energy costs.
It would be "a heavy lift" to pass a climate change bill this year, she predicted. "In this economy, it is important to take it one step at a time," she said as she praised the pending energy bill.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)