In discussions of trade and economic policy, China increasingly plays the role that Japan once did — simultaneously vilified and lionized as both threat and model.

In the 1980s, “trade hawks” warned that Japan would “hollow out” our economy unless we adopted Japanese-style industrial policy to counter Japan’s “unfair” trade practices. Today, “progressives” warn that China will “eat our lunch” in the “clean tech race” unless we aggressively subsidize domestic manufacturers of wind turbines, solar panels, and the like, to counter China’s clean-tech subsidies, which, we are told, constitute “unfair” trade practices.

If there is any consistency in these discussions, it is that subsidies are always either good or bad, fair or unfair, depending on whether they rig the market for “our” companies or “their” companies.

Oh yes, there is one other point of consistency — everybody agrees “clean tech” can’t compete without subsidies. This came out during a conference earlier in the week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sun Guoshun, first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., defended his government’s use of subsidies as necessary to having a clean-tech sector. 

As reported today in Climatewire (subscription required), Mr. Sun said: “It is the consensus of the international community that renewable energy is not in a position to compete with fossil fuel energy. So if you’re not going to subsidize renewable energy, there will be no renewable energy.”

There’s only a month left on the Senate calendar, and elections are looming, so many Senators are wary of an issue as divisive and nuanced as is cap-and-trade energy rationing. As a result, there’s been a lot of procrastinating.

Two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid convened a meeting of Senate Committee chairs in order to figure out how to proceed with climate legislation. They agreed to punt, by having a meeting of the entire Senate the following week.

A week ago, all Democratic Senators met, and they listened to three of their colleagues pitch variations of climate/energy legislation, as well as a pep talk from Sen. Barbara Boxer (my favorite environmentalist Senator). But the pleas fell on deaf ears, and the DNP Caucus session ended inconclusively.

Following that failure, President Obama requested yet another meeting of Senate energy/climate principles and moderates from both parties. The discussion will take place today, and the guest list includes Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Richard Lugar, Judd Gregg, Susan Collins, Sherrod Brown and Lisa Murkowski, according to a survey of offices by Energy & Environment Daily.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and elections are nearing. The punditry seems to be in consensus that the prognosis for cap-and-trade is dire, although there has been some discussion about a sinister back door strategy, by which the Senate would pass bare-bones energy bill, sans an energy tax, and then leadership would insert a cap-and-trade into the bill that is reconciled with the American Energy and Security Act, the climate legislation that the House passed last June. Evidently, proponents of this strategy are banking on the reconciliation conference to take place during the lame duck session after upcoming elections, a time when some Members of Congress would have nothing to lose, because they would have already lost.

**Update: 8:20 A.M. E&E Daily’s lede story this morning reports that President Obama has postponed the climate meeting, due to the ongoing imbroglio over the Afghan general who put his foot in his mouth. Fortunately, there’s not much further down the road the majority can kick this can, before the clock runs out on the legislative calendar.

Rumors surfaced last week that President Barack Obama now considers financial sector reform to be his administration’s #2 priority after healthcare. Previously, climate change was thought to be the next big-ticket item on the President’s agenda.

The tea-leaves seem to indicate that this rumor is true.

For starters, Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) decided to stay on as Chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, rather than accept the gavel on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (a post vacated by the passing of Ted Kennedy).

The only plausible explanation for Dodd’s decision to remain the chairman of the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over financial sector reform, is an expectation by Dodd that Obama will push for increased regulation of Wall Street in the short term. Dodd faces a tough re-election fight in 2010, and taking on Wall Street would put him in a favorable spotlight for the foreseeable future.

And today in New York, President Obama gave a speech on the need for a new regulatory regime to govern Wall Street, thereby lending further credence to the rumor that climate change has dropped as a priority.

Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (which has primary jurisdiction over climate change legislation) last week again delayed the introduction of global warming legislation, and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, told reporters that cap-and-trade might have to wait until 2010.

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