Kerry-Graham-LiebermanSens. Kerry, Lieberman, and GrahamPhoto: Wonk RoomIn the wake of health care reform passage, the question du jour seems to be: what next? The Senate doesn’t have a ton of time before mid-term elections bring Silly Season (not that any season is free of silliness in the Senate). A number of issues are tapping on the glass. Next up is financial reform; after that, the top contenders seem to be immigration and climate, though the nebulous “focusing on the economy” is always hovering. (Because immigration and energy, like health care, have no economic impact.)

I don’t know what Reid will choose. The CBO probably won’t be finished scoring Kerry-Graham-Lieberman’s bill for five or six weeks, which, depending on when they finally unveil it, could be late May or June. Hell, maybe financial regulation and immigration can both be done by then! Cause of how fast the Senate is.

Anyway, I think this what’s-next talk is obscuring a more interesting and consequential dynamic. I’m talking about the tension between John Kerry and Jeff Bingaman over whether to pass a comprehensive bill or an “energy-only” bill. They’re supposedly going to meet with Reid to fight it out today.

When I talked to Bingaman in September, he hedged carefully on the question of whether the energy bill reported out of his Energy Committee should be passed separately from, possibly instead of, a carbon pricing bill:

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Well I favor passing energy legislation, and of course we reported a significant energy bill out of our committee earlier this year. I hope we can bring that up and proceed with it. I also support dealing with greenhouse gas emissions more directly through a cap and trade system. That legislation has not yet come out of committee. It will be up to the majority leader whether we combine those two, or do them separately, and I’m not really in a position to make that decision. But, I would like to see us do both, and do both this year if possible. If we’re not able to do both, I’d like to see us do all that we can do this year.

Jeff BingamanJeff Bingaman

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Now, according to Lisa Lerer at Politico, Bingaman isn’t just leaving it to Reid — he’s lobbying aggressively for his own bill:

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Democratic Policy Committee chair Byron Dorgan have been fiercely lobbying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take up the energy-only bill approved by the energy committee last June. The two met with Reid last week to argue for their legislation, which includes no cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

Their pitch to Reid is pretty obvious: the energy-only bill, the committee’s American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA), already has demonstrated bipartisan appeal. Don’t attach it to that nasty, contentious cap-and-whatever! Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

But the KGL bill isn’t perfect, and ACELA isn’t that good. Passing only ACELA would be a huge disappointment, for reasons I’ve been over before. Hell, passing KGL’s carbon pricing piece with ACELA would be a disappointment. Relative to the complementary energy and efficiency policies in the House’s bill, the American Clean Energy & Security Act, ACELA is just too weak. As I argued the other day, in the next 5-10 years it’s more important to get strong clean energy and efficiency provisions than to get any particular cap or carbon price.

The very best outcome here would be for Reid to insist on a comprehensive bill and for Bingaman to a) sign on to the effort, and b) commit to substantially strengthening ACELA. But that’s not necessarily likely. Bingaman doesn’t trust that KGL can get through this year, and he doesn’t want to see the bill he invested so much time and political capital in wither on the vine.

We’ll see whether Kerry can do for Reid and Bingaman what Pelosi did for Obama and Reid on health care reform — stiffen their resolve and keep their sights set high.