He also wanted to include a raft of natural gas incentives in the economic stimulus bill, but most didn't make the cut. Pickens takes some credit for provisions promoting wind and solar energy, as well as a smart electric grid. But Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate Energy committee, notes that President Obama touted those initiatives during his campaign.
Lawmakers say Pickens' real impact lies in his ability to draw both Democrats and Republicans into the clean-energy fold. Reid says Pickens was a big reason he was able to corral three Republican votes for the $787 billion stimulus package. That paved the way for passage by overcoming a big procedural hurdle.
"I never thought I'd grow to like the guy, he's such a Republican rat," Reid says of Pickens, who helped fund the Swift boat ads that helped doom Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. "But he's a good person, and he's really helped us with Republicans."
Sierra Club chief Carl Pope says Pickens "has changed the political conversation."
Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., author of the natural gas bill, says the energy mogul didn't spark the legislation, but "it would not pass without" him. "People of all sorts of political stripes can be on board."
The measure would mark the biggest step so far toward Pickens' vision. It includes fresh incentives for manufacturers to make gas-powered vehicles, companies to buy them and fueling stations to install pumps.
Pickens has little patience for skeptics who believe his campaign was built to feed a robust ego. "(Expletive) ego," he says. "Really, the way I saw myself is, 'You're the only one that understands the problem, and you're the only one that has a solution.' "
"It's all about America," he adds. "If you're a good American, you accept the mission and go out and do it. It's the biggest thing I ever worked on in my career."
That doesn't mean Pickens isn't enjoying the limelight. At the Capitol Hill news conference, as the cameras flashed, someone called him a rock star. "An 80-year-old rock star," he responded with a half smile.