Jeff BingamanThis is Sen. Jeff Bingaman looking excited.Could Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) be the savior for Senate climate legislation? That’s the latest chatter inside the Beltway. Bingaman has been pushing an energy-only bill, passed by his Energy Committee last year, that wouldn’t put a cap or a price on carbon. But he’s also now drafting a bill that would cap greenhouse-gas emissions from the utility sector — though he doesn’t sound very excited about it and isn’t even set on introducing it. 

Compare and contrast: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who’s sponsoring a comprehensive energy and climate bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), has been a far more passionate advocate of climate legislation. He wrote a call for a strong bill in Foreign Policy last week: 

A carbon-pricing plan will decrease our dependence on foreign oil, create American jobs, lower energy bills, and protect our environment. This will be the measure of a real bill, and I’m prepared to fight to get this done, following the strategy Winston Churchill laid out at the outbreak of World War II: ‘Never give in, never give in — never, never, never, never.’

Bingaman, on the other hand, sounded decidedly unenthusiastic in a C-SPAN interview about energy and climate legislation on Sunday:  

My experience in the Senate is that you need to do what you can do when you can do it …

And:

There is a big gap between what the scientists say we should do to deal with climate change, and what the politics of the Congress today, and particularly the politics of the Senate, will allow us to do.

Here are three takes on how things could play out in Senate with this new unlikeliest of leading men:

Let’s get mellow: Coral Davenport argues in Politico that Bingaman, ever on low flame, might have a better shot at making things happen than John the Earnest.    

[Bingaman] slowly, carefully and methodically hammers out pragmatic, detailed energy legislation with Republican partners in long, dull markups that don’t draw attention but do produce solid pieces of legislation forged in the order of the committee process.

And as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scrambles to get a comprehensive and contentious energy package to the floor in the heat of campaign season, with his caucus fracturing all around him and oil spill politics further inflaming the debate, Bingaman’s committee-approved energy bills have a certain appeal.   

With friends like that…: To get a sense of how bizarre the fight for a climate bill has become in the Senate, consider Nicole Allan’s take in The Atlantic. She suggests that Bingaman may need to buddy up with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who only a month ago was flogging her unsuccessful resolution to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. Writes Allan:  

Murkowski has a history of partnering with Bingaman on climate issues …

But even if Murkowski overcomes her looming political concerns and works with Democrats on a climate bill, she will be no Lindsey Graham. Earlier this year, she supplied a list of the oil and gas provisions — such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling — that she would need in order to vote for a climate bill. Graham was a valued bipartisan liaison because he was able to broker deals for other Republican senators and interest groups; a liaison who demands controversial concessions for her own state, as Murkowski will, leaves Democrats less wiggle room.

The little cap that couldn’t:  Some are floating the idea that Democrats could slide a carbon cap through during a lame-duck session after the November elections, but Bingaman says no dice. As Stephen Power noted in The Wall Street Journal:

Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, warned his colleagues against assuming they can pass a bill before the election with popular items — such as incentives for wind and solar power and electric cars — and then add more controversial provisions, such as a cap on carbon emissions, in a conference committee with the House after the election. That approach, he said, has failed in the past.

So what could succeed this year? Don’t look to Bingaman for encouragement: “I don’t know if the votes are there. I’m somewhat dubious that the votes are there” to restrict greenhouse gases from utilities, he told C-SPAN.