President Obama puts his political chips on the line tomorrow when he meets with House Democrats wrestling with legislation to overhaul U.S. energy and global warming policy.
The bill is stuck in subcommittee because of concerns from about a dozen Democrats with strong ties to the coal and gas-and-oil industries, and many predict a push from the popular new president may shove the measure along in the legislative process.
"Having an expression of interest on this from the White House is extremely useful in convincing members of the president's own party to try and reach an accord," said Joe Stanko, an industry attorney and former House Republican aide on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
But Obama faces some danger in wading so soon into the climate policy battle on Capitol Hill. A loss in the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee could hamper the long-term prospects for one of the president's signature agenda items. And it also would carry broader repercussions as diplomats around the world look to the new administration for leadership as international negotiations reach a climax this December in Copenhagen.
To date, Obama has dealt in broad terms on climate, weaving the issue into his inaugural address, nationally televised press conferences and speeches to Congress. Tomorrow's meeting with House Democrats marks the first time he will be face to face with the committee members haggling over the sticky details of climate legislation.
An environmentalist tracking the climate debate expects Obama will do his best to persuade Democrats that he is behind them in midterm elections as they move forward on the legislation.
"Let them know they won't be hanging in the next election," the environmentalist said. "Let them know it's a presidential priority. And if they help him, he'll help them out elsewhere, even if it's not on this bill."
Obama's timing could be ideal. While the 36-member subcommittee may seem like an early stage in the process for the president to be stepping in, Obama could get the biggest bang for his lobbying buck by pushing now. After all, the panel's political dynamics are seen as friendly to industry.
"There's no doubt that because of the way the ideology of the subcommittee is set up, passing the subcommittee would be a momentum-producing event," Stanko said.
It also appears Senate Democratic leaders see the House debate in the same way.
"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 National Journal Group. "And this laboratory is now in operation."
And another factor in Obama's move may be politics -- with the president riding high in the polls ever since his election last November.
"Right now, he's got enough in the bank that he can continue to make withdrawals," said Dana Perino, former White House spokeswoman for President George W. Bush.
Deal on cap and trade, oil drilling?
Obama officials have been busy behind the scenes laying the groundwork for tomorrow's White House meeting.
The president's top political and energy advisers, David Axelrod and Carol Browner, came to Capitol Hill last week to meet with key House and Senate committee members and staff who are working on the bill.
Senators in attendance said their closed-door meeting was about messaging -- how to connect the energy and climate plan to national security and economic recovery.
"The discussion was ... related to making the connection that good global warming policy is good economic policy," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who attended the meeting.
But Obama and his advisers have also been sending their own set of mixed messages about just how much they want to get accomplished.
In an Earth Day speech in Newton, Iowa, Obama cited Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry 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 of the measure written by the California Democrat and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
But four days later, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, left a different impression during an appearance on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Emanuel predicted an energy bill would reach Obama's desk this year, but he was less certain about the cap-and-trade provisions that House Democrats have folded into the package.
"Our goal is to get that done," Emanuel said. "We will see. You're asking me right before the legislative process starts to make that prediction."
And here is an added twist. In a profile of White House budget chief Peter Orszag published last week in The New Yorker, administration officials are quoted as floating the idea of a "grand bargain" on global warming and energy.
The story cites a senior White House official who said the administration is "exploring an energy deal that would include a 'serious' and 'short term' increase in domestic production -- perhaps opening up for oil exploration places like the waters off the coast of California -- that would appease the 'Drill, baby, drill' crowd, while also adopting a cap-and-trade plan that could take effect one or two (or more) years after 2012, which is when Obama's current plan would start."
"You need to have something like T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore holding hands on a broad compromise," the Obama official told the magazine.
And the article concludes, "Such a plan wouldn't look much like the one in Obama's budget proposal -- more like a third cousin than like a sibling, let alone a twin -- but, unlike his current plan, it could get through Congress."
White House press aides declined to comment on the story.
Mixed messages from Hill
On Capitol Hill, House Democrats appear to be split about the role of the Obama administration in shaping the bill. Lawmakers seeking to change Waxman's original draft would prefer the White House stay out of the process for now.
"We're going to work this out among ourselves," Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a lead negotiator for House moderates, said Thursday, before Obama had sent his invitations to the White House. "And it's better that we do this together."
Added Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), "I think the House ought to work on this. I really do. This is one that's exceptionally complicated. There are a lot of details to work out, and that's what Congress is supposed to look at. That's our job."
Other Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee said they would welcome Obama's entry into the debate, especially beyond the occasional speech and mention during press conferences.
"I hope we'll hear more from him on this topic," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). "I think now would be a very good time."
But Jeremy Mayer, a political science professor at George Mason University, said Obama would be smart to hold his fire when it comes to hardcore lobbying for the bill. The subcommittee debate, he said, is not as crucial as future votes in the House and Senate when the details are even more finely tuned.
"When you roll out major legislative agenda items like energy policy, timing is crucial," Mayer said. "It's not a time for public strategy. You'd waste your effort. You only have so many bullets in the gun of appealing to the public."
Mayer said the White House meeting tomorrow and the outreach from top Obama brass do not equate to the lobbying blitz that will be necessary.
"If Obama is as popular in three months as he is today, this legislation will have a much better chance of passage," Mayer said. "If he calls [moderate House Democrats] into his office then, they'll be afraid of opposing him. There's no point in going public on this now."