President Obama lent his voice last night to the push for a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions, using his first speech to a joint session of Congress to lobby for controversial legislation sure to spark a heated debate during tight economic times.
Obama campaigned for president last year with climate change and energy issues atop his agenda. And he returned to those themes yesterday, saying that a cap-and-trade bill would help spark economic recovery by giving U.S. companies greater incentive to start producing more wind turbines, solar panels, biofuels and battery-powered automobiles.
"To truly transform our economy, to protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy," Obama said in his address to Congress. "So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. That's what we need."
In his next breath, the president teased a key climate-related component in his upcoming budget proposal to Congress. "To support that innovation, we will invest $15 billion a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more efficient cars and trucks built right here in America," Obama said, referring to a budget plan that would assume government revenue from the allowances sold to companies for compliance with the cap-and-trade system.
Obama also appealed to lawmakers by acknowledging the difficulties associated with voting on a climate plan that is sure to carry a large price tag. "None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy," the president said. "But this is America. We don't do what's easy. We do what's necessary to move this country forward."
Nearly all House and Senate Democrats gave Obama a standing ovation for his climate change comments, with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) even turning behind him to give a high five to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). A small group of moderate Senate Republicans also rose at Obama's mention of cap-and-trade legislation, including Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida, and John McCain of Arizona.
Just getting started
Obama's global warming comments lacked many of the specifics that will surely be at the center of the Capitol Hill debate set to unfold over the next several months. The president also stayed well clear of the looming question of whether to combine energy and climate change bills into one big package or splinter them into separate pieces.
Instead, Obama stuck to general themes, lumping energy in with health care and education as "the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future."
Advocates of cap-and-trade legislation welcomed the president's remarks and pledged in varying degrees that they would soon deliver a major climate bill for his signature.
"President Obama asked Congress for legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and we intend to give it to him," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, which will be the point of origin for the legislation.
"It is extremely helpful," Boxer added. "He has asked Congress to come forward, so we are very ready and my committee is very ready to do that."
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) predicted Obama was only getting started in his appeals for support on climate change. "When he used the term the 'ravages of climate change' he is clearly talking passionately about this issue," Udall said. "He clearly believes in this issue and I think we are going to see him push in a big way, in a bold way, to get something done."
Leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill have sent signals they too are ready to meet Obama's request.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said earlier this week that he wants to hold a floor debate on a bipartisan climate bill by the end of the summer, specifically singling out McCain as a Republican who he is looking to for support. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also pledged a first-ever climate vote this year on cap-and-trade legislation that Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) expects to mark up before Memorial Day (E&E Daily, Feb. 9).
But Republican leaders, as well as several rank-and-file members, suggested last night that they have no plans to line up behind Obama's climate agenda.
"We need to lead the country on the basis of a sound economic energy policy," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "We cannot exist by thinking we can tax our way into the future. You may very well close out the manufacturing sector to this economy if we're not careful. We've got to strike the right balance in terms of energy and environmental policy."
'Cap and trade won't work'
As the climate debate proceeds, Obama's biggest challenge may be winning over lawmakers who represent districts and states with large industrial bases.
"I think that is going to fall largely along regional lines, rather than along party lines," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last night, adding, "I personally am not going to be supporting a cap-and-trade proposal."
Indeed, several Democrats are sure to present Obama with obstacles.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), for example, gave reporters an emphatic "no" when asked whether he thought Obama's comments about cap-and-trade legislation would build momentum for climate legislation. "Cap and trade won't work," he said.
Rockefeller is part of the "Gang of 15," a collection of moderate senators from the Midwest, Rust Belt and West who say the climate debate to date has not taken their interests into account (E&E Daily, Feb. 10). Some other Democratic lawmakers in the coalition said they are still open to compromise.
"Congress is of a mind to do this, but we want to do it in the right way," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who was one of a handful of Senate moderates who helped pass the $787 billion stimulus bill earlier this month, said Obama could use his influence to prod Congress -- but should pay attention to the national mood. "Under the right set of circumstances he can, under the wrong set of circumstances, it shouldn't happen," Nelson said.
Obama also will need to work on the very same set of Senate Republicans who stood up to applaud his mention of climate change.
"Times are terrible," explained Florida's Martinez. "We cannot do something that's going to be costly to consumers or unduly burdensome on industry. So we've got to do it in a way that is reasonable and for the times."
South Carolina's Graham said he appreciated Obama's climate change position. But he found a big problem in what Obama did not mention: nuclear power. "It was a glaring omission to me," Graham said. "I'm sure the left doesn't want him to talk about it. But if you're serious about a cap-and-trade system that will work, and you have the power you need to keep a vibrant economy, wind and solar isn't going to get you there. To say otherwise is just not honest."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a senior member of Boxer's EPW Committee and a veteran of past climate debates, may have summed up Obama's challenge the best. "On a good day," he said, "it's going to be difficult to move climate change legislation."
Reporters Ben Geman, Robin Bravender and Christa Marshall contributed.