President Obama struck an optimistic note last night on the prospects for signing a major global warming law, pledging also to craft a bill that takes into account economic concerns and the country's regional differences over energy production.
In his second primetime news conference since taking office, Obama nudged Congress to focus its attention on passing cap-and-trade legislation through regular order rather than get tangled up on the measure during a preliminary debate this month over the nonbinding budget resolution.
"Our point in the budget is let's get started now," Obama said. "We can't wait. And my expectation is that the energy committees, or other relevant committees, in both the House and the Senate, are going to be moving forward a strong energy package. It'll be authorized. We'll get it done. And I will sign it."
Obama last month sent Congress a budget blueprint that included specific emission limits and some detailed recommendations for how to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in new government revenue generated through the implementation of his cap-and-trade plan.
But the president acknowledged that even those specifics do not need to be reflected in the budget resolution that the House and Senate budget committees are voting on this week. "We never expected when we printed out our budget that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it," Obama said.
Pressed last night to explain how wedded he is to his energy and climate change agenda, Obama replied by focusing on the long-term implications of a more aggressive U.S. global warming policy.
"When it comes to cap and trade, the broader principle is that we've got to move to a new energy era," he said. "That means moving away from polluting energy sources toward cleaner energy sources. That's a potential engine for economic growth. I think cap and trade is the best way, from my perspective, to achieve some of those gains, because what it does is it starts pricing the pollution that's being sent into the atmosphere."
Obama also offered an olive branch to congressional Democrats who have expressed concern over key details of the cap-and-trade approach, including lawmakers who represent states and districts that are heavily dependent on coal and manufacturing industries. "The way it's structured, it has to take into account regional differences, it has to protect consumers from huge spikes in electricity prices," Obama said. "So there are a lot of technical issues that are going to have to be sorted through."
The president did not offer a timeline for when he wants to sign the energy and climate law. And he also did not mention possible federal regulations for greenhouse gases at U.S. EPA under a nearly two-year-old Supreme Court precedent that requires the agency to issue emission control rules should it determine that climate change threatens public health or welfare.
The White House Office of Management and Budget last Friday started its review of a proposed EPA finding that makes that very connection Greenwire, March 23).
All eyes on the House
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are deep into the technical cap-and-trade issues that the president teased during his news conference.
In the House Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, Democratic staff are preparing a draft bill on energy and cap and trade that they expect to release before lawmakers break on April 3 for the spring recess.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, plans a markup of the bill before Memorial Day. Yesterday, Waxman said his bill would stick to his core principles for curbing emissions while also addressing the same regional and economic concerns that Obama promised to tackle.
"We're going to have to walk through all these issues," Waxman said. "We need to achieve environmental results scientists tell us are necessary, but we have to do it in a way that recognizes the various regional concerns and concerns about how different portions of the population are going to be effected."
There is little doubt that Waxman and Obama will face vocal opposition from some key Republican leaders.
"They're in a real dilemma," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said last week. "When they put it out, all hell is going to break loose. And if they don't put it out, they're going to be accused of foot dragging by the environmental radicals."
In the Senate, key Democratic members are largely holding back on specifics for their own climate plan out of deference to Waxman and House Democratic leaders.
"I assume the House is going to go first, and we're looking forward to whatever they're going to produce," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has also consistently sidestepped questions about her schedule for writing a climate bill. "It hasn't been decided," she told reporters last week. "It's a very fluid strategy."
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) credited Boxer for being circumspect about her legislative plans. "I think she's smart," Murkowski said. "Why put yourself into a box when you don't have to on the timing? I think we all recognize that this is difficult and complicated. And as soon as you put a deadline out there, it's ... going to be an artificial timeframe that you cannot meet. So you set yourself up to fail before you've even begun."
Looking ahead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he is not planning to pick any one lawmaker to be the Senate shepherd on the energy and climate issue. Instead, Reid said he planned to leave the climate and energy issue to Boxer, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
"I think we have three people who will, according to what part of the bill we're on," Reid said.