President Obama will meet tomorrow at the White House with House Democrats who are struggling to reach consensus on a major energy and global warming bill.
A White House aide said the meeting between Obama and Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats is expected to cover a wide range of issues on the panel's plate, including health care reform and the proposal to set a first-ever mandatory cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The session comes at a critical juncture for Obama's energy and environmental agenda. Democratic leaders last week postponed plans for a markup because they did not have enough votes to pass the legislation out of subcommittee, and closed-door talks since then with about a dozen conservative and moderate Democrats from districts with strong ties to industry have yet to yield an agreement.
Like this year's successfully enacted stimulus package and budget resolution, Obama has not given specific legislative language to the Congress to meet his goals on climate change and energy. Instead, he has left the details for lawmakers to work out among themselves.
One key Energy and Commerce Committee Democrat said he expects no major departure in the administration's legislation strategy as he heads this week to meet with Obama at the White House.
"I think what he's going to do is say, 'Please, don't vote no. Let's see what we can work out,'" said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who will also visit today with Obama during a White House event to celebrate Cinco de Mayo -- a day earlier than the actual holiday.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), have pledged to finish their work on the climate change legislation before the Memorial Day recess. They only need 36 hours to notice a markup, and the lawmakers' aides last week said the plan remained to begin subcommittee consideration this week. The two Democrats have tried to avoid comment on the status of the intra-party talks.
Some environmentalists and liberal committee members last week began clamoring for Obama to take a more public stance on global warming out of concern the Democratic-led Congress could stumble on an issue they struggled to get addressed for eight years during the Bush administration.
"I hope we'll hear more from him on this topic," Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said Thursday. "I think now would be a very good time."
"I think right now Waxman is negotiating from a position that he doesn't have leadership from Obama," added Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "Right now, Obama can provide that. The question is: will he?"
White House officials last week insisted that Obama had been speaking forcefully on the climate issue, including an Earth Day speech where he cited Waxman's work on a draft bill that lined up generally with the administration's goals on global warming. "My hope is that this will be the vehicle through which we put this policy in effect," Obama said during a visit to a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Newton, Iowa.
Obama's top political and energy advisers, David Axelrod and Carol Browner, also spoke last week with key House and Senate committee members working on the cap-and-trade bill. The presentation was "just to map out an effective strategy to communicate to the American people why it is absolutely imperative that we need to address global warming," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who attended the meeting.
Even as the White House ramps up its efforts, Obama can expect to face some resistance from House Democrats who prefer that the administration stay out of the details on negotiations.
"We're going to work this out among ourselves," Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a lead negotiator for the committee's moderate Democrats, said last week. "And it's better that we do this together."
Can Waxman pull it off?
With only three weeks until Memorial Day, the volume has escalated on both sides in advance of a possible subcommittee markup.
The liberal group Moveon.org and the veterans group VoteVets began running ads last week in districts home to swing-vote Democrats urging them to support the Waxman-Markey legislation. The American Energy Alliance also hit the airwaves with commercials in 11 House districts seeking to turn many of those same Democrats against the bill.
Within the Democratic caucus are members who are skeptical about the chances of passing such a sweeping change in U.S. global warming policy. "I think from what I'm seeing of what is developing here, I think it is highly unlikely that any climate change bill is going to pass," House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said last week.
And there are also only a handful of Republicans that are still considering giving their support to the Democratic plan. On the committee, the lone GOP lawmaker who has not been ruled out as a "no" vote is Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California. But that has not stopped some wishful thinking among swing-vote Democrats.
"I'd hope if we get a deal, it'll be across party lines, which means it'll be a deal no one is really crazy about but everybody has some skin in the game, which means it possibly might be a good bill," said Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.).
As they struggle to find the votes, rumors are flying about what Democratic leaders may need to do if they want to pass the legislation. One idea floating around Capitol Hill would see the climate bill bypassing Markey's subcommittee and going straight to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. But this is not a favorite option for either side of the aisle.
"I think they have to start it at subcommittee," said Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas). "To his credit, Ed Markey has had a good series of hearings. He deserves the right to try to mark up a bill in his subcommittee."
Committee Democrats are also clamoring to see more details on the legislation. Green, for example, has said he wants another hearing on the bill once Waxman and Markey complete the provisions on how to distribute valuable emission credits among industry. Several lawmakers have said they will not commit one way or another with their vote until they can review that key section of the bill.
"I don't know what the details are going to be, and the details are extremely important," said Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.).
And the Senate?
Waxman and Markey's work also will have major implications across Capitol Hill.
"The House is a laboratory for us because they have the ability to move things more quickly than we do," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Friday during an event hosted by the National Journal Group. "And this laboratory is now in operation."
Reid, a former two-term congressman, praised the Energy and Commerce Committee's leaders as they try to deal with lawmakers from key industrial states such as Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, which are heavily reliant on coal.
"I have great respect for the legislative skills of Henry Waxman and Ed Markey," Reid said. "I've met with both of them. And I learned a long time ago, having served with Waxman in the House, never try to get into a situation with him where you're trying to have more votes than he does. Because he has a way of getting the extra votes that he needs. So I'm anxious to see how he's going to handle the middle members from the states I just mentioned."
Meanwhile, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said yesterday he believes a climate bill can pass this year.
"What can we do this year? I want to see a bipartisan bill on health care. I want to us attack this issue of global warming and climate change, and to make sure that America is moving toward energy independence, green jobs in this new economy. Those are things we can accomplish," Durbin said on Fox News Sunday.
Schedule: Energy and Commerce subcommittee markup TBA.
Reporters Ben Geman and Allison Winter contributed.