Climate-change legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill, but the White House’s unofficial “Green Cabinet” is quietly trying to revive the effort by lobbying dozens of senators.
President Obama has dispatched Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to Capitol Hill. White House aides said that they and other executive branch staffers, such as climate-change czar Carol Browner, have met with “dozens” of senators.
They are working to assure key senators - ranging from Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, to John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat - that a climate-change bill is viewed as a “priority” by the administration, Capitol Hill sources said.
Mr. Kerry hosted several top Obama officials at his home this spring, and he and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, hold a weekly meeting that White House officials have frequented.
Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled that he thinks the bill won’t see the floor until next year, but the private message from the leadership is firm, Senate aides said: Get the bills out of committee as soon as possible.
Similar to the health reform battle, the plan is working its way through multiple committees - five on the Senate side before a plan is meshed with the House bill, which narrowly passed in June by a 219-212 vote. The Energy Committee is the only Senate panel that’s passed a version so far.
A White House aide said the “Green Cabinet” is asking senators to support a comprehensive plan - though some vulnerable lawmakers would prefer that the bill be split into more politically tenable pieces - and is asking them to share ideas for what to include in the legislation.
As those meetings take place behind closed doors, some senators are striking deals on individual bits such as coal and nuclear issues, sources on Capitol Hill and in environmental groups say.
But that’s not enough for some groups that say timing is of the essence.
Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, faulted Mr. Obama for not providing clear markers and said he worries time is running out before the major climate summit in Copenhagen in December.
“I totally understand where they are on health care and that it’s all hands on deck for that issue, but that said, we’re going to need a lot of presidential leadership to get this done,” said Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund.
“We need leadership from the top,” Mr. Davies added. “It’s hard to imagine them getting this done without clear prioritization from the White House.”
Michael Levi, the Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow for energy and the environment, said the benchmarks for Copenhagen needn’t be passed legislation, but rather a feeling of momentum.
“The key is for there to be a sense that there is momentum going forward … that the international process is not being entirely derailed, because if there is that sense on Capitol Hill, there will be enormous reluctance to move anywhere on cap-and-trade legislation,” he said.
Others said the bill is at a “crucial and long-coming moment.”
“The international community will gather at Copenhagen this December, and it is critical that the United States lead the world into that conference and not still be debating the bill here at home,” said James Boyce, a Boston-based Democratic consultant who works on climate issues.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says he isn’t worried about the Senate delay because, “We’ve got to make progress, and the international community’s got to make progress getting China and India and developing nations and evolving world economies like Brazil on board.”
The White House has not laid down a firm timeline for the bill, however.
Mr. Reid told reporters that the Senate still has “next year to complete things” if the climate bill doesn’t reach the floor in 2009, but his spokesman soon walked it back to say the Senate remains committed to passing the bill by the end of the year, along with health care and new financial regulations.
Mr. Obama announced on Tuesday a new auto fuel economy standards policy to reduce greenhouse gases, and was expected this week to speak at the United Nations climate change summit in New York and address environmental issues at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.
Others noted that Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. regularly talk about the importance of clean energy and jobs related to climate change policy.
“It’s hard to find another president who has shown as much leadership on climate as this one,” said Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters.
But Mr. Davies of Greenpeace said that without a bill passed, it leaves governments with uncertainty, since other countries are putting markers on the table now.
Others said the House bill - which imposes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions - is enough of a benchmark to show the United States is serious.
Mr. Kreindler noted that energy and climate have moved further through Congress than any other piece of the administration’s agenda.
“Given the complexity of the issue, to have a bill out of the House in a president’s first year is remarkable,” he said.
The environmental groups also said that despite a stall on Capitol Hill, polls show broad American support for getting something done soon.
They also have new momentum, with the formation of a grassroots group of faith leaders, veterans and labor leaders dubbed Clean Energy Works, which has staff in 28 states. The coalition is organizing to keep tying the bill to job creation.
David Di Martino of Clean Energy Works dismissed others groups’ concerns about Copenhagen, saying that the American people who will help build support for the bill’s passage aren’t thinking about the upcoming summit and that the fall months leave time to consider the measure.
“President Obama hasn’t forgotten about this issue as key to his domestic agenda, and they will get to it when there is time for it,” he said.