Can Senate Democrats snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory? Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

Politico has them bumbling around again, “scrambling” to react to an attack on EPA climate rules that has been telegraphed for months. I don’t know how much of this is genuine fecklessness and how much is Politico’s enduring love of portraying Dems as feckless, but either way, it’s hard to discern much feck.

The Upton-Inhofe bill, which would reverse EPA’s scientific finding of endangerment for greenhouse gases — and thereby permanently block EPA from addressing climate pollution — sailed through the House Energy Committee on Tuesday after what can only be described as a tragicomic show trial. It will go to a full House vote some time in the next few weeks, where it is expected to pass easily.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has agreed to hold a vote on the Inhofe bill as early as Wednesday. In the best case scenario, Reid is doing something shrewd: holding a vote quickly, on the harshest bill likely to address the issue, while he knows he can win. He will heighten the contradictions, raise the stakes, and twist the arms of wavering senators to get to 40.

I fear, however, that something worse is afoot. This is, after all, the U.S. Senate. My fear is that Reid will offer to buy conservative Dem votes against the Inhofe bill by promising a vote on the Rockefeller bill, which would delay EPA regulations for two years. As I predicted long ago, Rockefeller’s bill has become the “moderate,” compromise option.

Yesterday in the Senate, Rockefeller was making pious noises, decrying the Inhofe bill as too extreme. But the fact is, his bill would have the same effect in the end: it would kill EPA climate rules.

Here’s the problem: The Senate will probably vote down Inhofe’s bill. But Rockefeller’s bill could get enough votes to pass. Obama would probably veto Inhofe’s bill. But he might let Rockefeller’s pass as a rider. So Rockefeller’s bill has a better chance of getting through.

And think about it: What happens if a bipartisan group of legislators in 2011 block EPA rules for two years on the grounds that the economy can’t afford to take a hit? What happens is, the (false) message that EPA rules will damage the economy becomes ratified conventional wisdom. And in two years, do you think those same politicians will say, “Eh, I guess the economy can afford to take a hit now”? No. The rules will get delayed again and eventually blocked for good. A two-year delay means death. The only difference is, Senate Dems can hide from responsibility for a while.

As is all too common for progressives, most hope at this point lies in Republican overreach. Perhaps rabid House Republicans won’t be satisfied with a two-year delay and the result will be deadlock. That’s probably the best we can hope for at the moment, unless Democrats muster some serious feck.