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

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; A05

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.

"In truth, emissions reductions, whether done by legislation, treaty or regulation for that matter, are ineffective and unpopular ideas," said Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst on energy and environment at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

U.S. prestige 'on the line'

Regardless of these obstacles, though, Obama has little choice but to press the issue. He and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged in Copenhagen that the United States would help mobilize $100 billion in annual funding by 2020 to help poor countries cope with global warming. Administration officials said a significant portion of the U.S. share would come from carbon trading markets where polluters would have to buy emission allowances from the federal government and offset some of their emissions by investing in forestry projects overseas.

Michael A. Levi, a senior energy and environment fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that although the administration does not need to put a cap-and-trade system in effect immediately, "their international credibility will suffer if they can't start putting mechanisms for cutting emissions and delivering on their financial goals relatively soon."

Environmentalists and some of their allies on the Hill are confident that Obama is invested enough in the issue to focus on climate legislation next year. Kerry said there is "not a chance in hell" that there won't be a major push "after the president put American prestige on the line in Copenhagen." Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, said last week's deal "helps us down the path to 60 votes by taking the China excuse off the table and teeing this issue up as a presidential priority for 2010."

But in the immediate aftermath of the health-care fight, Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet said, "Congress is going to need to spend a little bit of time naming post offices" before it can manage the heavy lift of assembling a genuine compromise on climate change.

At that point, Grumet said, Democrats have to "make truly sincere overtures to Republicans at the outset of the process to create the overall architecture of legislation, which is really the only way to create a truly bipartisan coalition, unlikely when Democrats try to write a bill and then look for what concessions or what changes need to be made to round up three Republican votes."

In the meantime, according to Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, senators will be watching to see whether the promises China and others made in Copenhagen get translated "into something real."

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