By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 12, 2009
President Obama is coming under renewed pressure internationally and in the United States to throw his weight behind climate-change legislation, which advocates fear has suffered in light of the president's sweeping domestic agenda.
The Nobel committee's announcement Friday that Obama won the Peace Prize was a fresh reminder that much of the world expects him to lead the way toward a global climate pact. The committee cited his "more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges."
And in Washington, advocates are clamoring for more evidence that Obama will make good on his campaign promise to impose the first-ever national cap on greenhouse gases. Last week, the leading author of Senate climate legislation sought personal assurances from Obama during an Oval Office meeting, saying he wanted to "hear it from him directly" as he pushed ahead.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told Obama he needs to direct his administration to be more aggressive in order to get Congress to take steps to limit pollution that contributes to global warming. But Kerry emerged from the meeting saying Obama had pledged closer coordination between the White House and its congressional allies on the issue.
"The bottom line is there's no way to negotiate a bill like this without the involvement of the administration that they've promised -- and they've been producing," Kerry said in an interview. "If we're going to talk about oil and gas, we need to know what the administration will sign off on."
Obama aides say the fears are unfounded, part of what senior adviser David Axelrod called "tempests and . . . kerfuffles" about the process of lawmaking that bear little relation to the actual progress they are making toward historic new laws aimed at preventing environmental degradation.
Asked to respond to concerns about the level of engagement by the White House, aides compiled the following statistics: Administration officials have met on the topic with more than half of the senators, they said. There have been calls with 100 mayors in 17 states and more than 50 energy-related events in 24 states. Officials have reached out to "hundreds" of energy stakeholders and local lawmakers, aides said.
"Our energy team is deeply, deeply involved in working with the appropriate members of Congress and their staffs. They've done a lot of work up there," Axelrod said. "This is an issue of extraordinary importance. I understand the advocates on the issue would like us to have acted by now. The president and others feel this should have been dealt with years ago."
White House officials, including energy and climate czar Carol M. Browner, Axelrod and National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers, have made presentations to a group of Democrats who meet regularly each week in the Capitol to discuss climate-change legislation. And last week, Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change, met with several key senators to discuss the bill, identifying how specific provisions would affect the prospects for a global pact.
A group of centrist Democrats from manufacturing states met Thursday with Browner. One of them, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), said the administration had "been helpful" but was still working on how to protect energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries. "The bill's not there yet," he said.
But while the White House has touted the need for energy and climate legislation in several events -- including one on Wednesday with business leaders and another with veterans last month -- it has not delved deeply into the detailed work of fashioning legislation.
Several veteran energy and environmental experts said the approach differs sharply from how Senate Democrats and a Republican White House handled the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, a major legislative overhaul in which the White House and Environmental Protection Agency officials provided their own legislative blueprint and negotiated for weeks with a bipartisan group of senators in then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's office.
"I don't see how this legislation moves forward without that kind of engagement from the president," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. "As of now, we don't see personal leadership from the president in helping the Senate find a bill that can get 60 votes. I hope we will."
Kerry and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have been negotiating for months with colleagues on what it would take for them to support climate legislation, but it remains far shy of the 60 votes it needs for passage.
Their efforts to expand the base of support for climate legislation showed some progress Sunday, when Kerry and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) authored a New York Times op-ed outlining possible grounds for a bipartisan deal on the issue. Graham has yet to co-sponsor the Senate bill, however.
The timeline for its consideration has slipped as well. Kerry and Boxer hoped to introduce it in late July, but the bill just came out last week and will have its first hearing late this month. Boxer's panel has suffered staff departures in recent months, including that of Joseph Goffman, a senior aide who worked on the climate bill but quit this month and will start next week as one of the EPA's senior counsels.
In an interview, Kerry said that during their meeting, Obama "reiterated how committed he is to moving forward, and to moving forward as soon as possible . . . I feel very confident there's going to be a full-court press from him to get as far as we can over the next few weeks," Kerry said.
Meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are closely tied to whether Congress adopts a binding carbon cap, which has received far less public attention than the health-care bill now dominating the Senate.
In the meantime, the EPA has been marching steadily toward greater regulation of greenhouse gasses, and the administration has promoted policies aimed at curbing the nation's carbon footprint, including new fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. Critics favor congressional action over EPA regulations, which they call a blunt tool that could hurt the economy.
"It seems what we're observing is pressure from the White House on EPA to do things, rather than pressure from the White House on Congress to do things," said American Electric Power chief executive Michael G. Morris, whose company, one of the nation's biggest electricity providers, has endorsed the House climate bill. "That doesn't seem the best approach."
On Friday, Denmark's climate and energy minister, Connie Hedegaard, who will be chairing U.N.-sponsored climate talks in December in Copenhagen, said Obama needs to do more on climate. "It is hard to imagine that he will be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10 and then come empty-handed to Copenhagen a week later," she said.
Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the administration needs to identify specific emissions reductions and the size of a financial aid package to developing nations to secure a climate deal.
"Without those, the best speech in the world won't suffice to shield the U.S. from blame for bringing the negotiations to a standstill, which is the likely outcome of a scenario where we can't commit to anything," Meyer wrote in an e-mail.