Obama faces tough fight in Senate to deliver on climate pledges made overseas

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

By brokering a climate deal in Copenhagen a week ago, President Obama has committed himself to a more daunting task: pushing for comprehensive climate legislation in the Senate next year.

Although many senators, especially key Republicans, have shown little appetite for backing yet another ambitious bill in the aftermath of the polarizing health-care debate, it is clear that enacting legislation to cap the U.S. carbon dioxide output and allow polluters to trade emission permits is essential to delivering on the pledges that Obama made to other world leaders.

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Obama said, "There is no doubt that energy legislation is going to be tough, but I feel very confident about making an argument to the American people that we should be a leader in clean energy technology -- that that will be one of the key engines that drives economic growth for decades to come."

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said the fact that "countries like China and India set carbon-intensity targets for the first time in history" should bolster the administration's legislative effort.

Since taking office in January, Obama and his deputies have regarded international climate talks as a way to get the sort of commitments from major emerging economies that would allow them to sell a cap-and-trade bill to skeptical lawmakers back home. As part of last week's accord, the four biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the developing world -- China, India, Brazil and South Africa -- agreed to list voluntary climate targets as part of an international registry and to allow third-party countries to scrutinize whether the four are making the emission cuts they say they are.

"That was the strategy all along," said Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), whose vote could be critical to passing a climate bill. "In that context, it was a home run."

But it is unclear whether that achievement -- which came at the expense of getting more ambitious overall climate targets and a clear deadline for a legally binding treating next year -- will translate into passage of the bill the administration is seeking.

GOP support will be crucial

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and another swing vote, called language in the Copenhagen deal allowing for verification of developing countries' carbon cuts "a very small step forward."

"Right now, the big question is whether the Senate, as a whole, can sit down and craft real bipartisan legislation that protects both the economy and the environment," Murkowski added. "We need to find ways to move forward in a bipartisan effort that makes sense for America, regardless of whether the rest of the world follows through or not."

In the wake of the health-care debate, winning Republican support for such a bill is crucial, even if it might mean adding provisions favored by the nuclear and oil industries, or scaling back the legislation's scope.

"I don't think the Senate has an appetite for another such epic, polarized legislative war this session," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who met with Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday to strategize on how to enlist support for a compromise climate bill they are writing.

It's a task that becomes more difficult in an election year, when most Republicans and conservative thinkers are eager to attack a policy that will probably raise energy prices in the near term.

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