Pressure is mounting on President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats to show significant progress on global warming legislation in time for a major U.N. climate summit in December.
"The Danes, the Chinese, the Europeans, the Australians, the Japanese -- everybody is almost singularly focused on what is the United States going to bring to the table," said Jake Schmidt, international policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Obama and congressional leaders say their goal is to pass a new climate law by the Copenhagen talks, a Herculean accomplishment, given the dynamics in Congress and given that there are only five months left before diplomats head to Denmark. But some veteran negotiators and longtime climate observers say U.S. politicians do not need to be so far along in the legislative process.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), for example, warned in an interview last week that Congress would be putting too much faith in developing nations by passing a law without also getting agreement from Beijing, New Delhi and other major foreign capitals.
"Let's say, for instance, we did pass a bill here, and we go to Copenhagen, but the Chinese continue to take the position we've had a century of development and they need time to catch up, and we also have to pay for the means of what they want to do," Lugar said. "This would be very disillusionary to most Americans, who say, 'Well, we've been had. There never was a political will.'"
For the president, now is the time to talk tough on climate and urge lawmakers to wrap up their work by December. Momentum matters as Congress juggles a plethora of his top priorities, from health care reform to Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court.
And if all goes according to plan and the votes line up, Obama would be able to cross off one of his top legislative agenda items before the 2010 midterm campaign starts.
On the world stage, the president would be able to hold up a U.S. law that signals to the developing nations that the United States has for the first time committed to mandatory emission caps, while also giving a clear picture of how much money those countries can expect for help on adaptation, clean energy technologies and reducing deforestation.
"It lets the Obama administration go to Copenhagen with the best story to tell on domestic action," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
'Some skin in the game'
Congress responded to the first part of Obama's strategy last month with a narrow 219-212 House victory on a sweeping energy and climate bill that includes emission cuts of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and a midcentury 83 percent target. It also offers some $600 million in clean-energy technology support to developing countries, as well as guidelines for countries that want access to what is projected to be a multitrillion U.S. carbon market.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last week during the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, that the House bill demonstrates that the United States has "some skin in the game."
"I know it was important to the president to have that step through the House of Representatives before he got here in order, I think, to show a strength in hand in dealing with developing nations," Gibbs said.
And with all eyes now on the Senate, administration officials are still pushing for a law by December.
"I would love to have as much progress on the law by the time of Copenhagen as possible," Todd Stern, Obama's top climate diplomat, said in an interview last month following a Senate briefing. "If it can be done by Copenhagen, that would be great."
Stern and others also recognize the political reality on Capitol Hill, which does not bode so well for a finished product in time for Copenhagen.
Consider Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was circumspect last week about the chances of final action in time for the U.N. talks, considering the 60 Senate vote hurdle, let alone a successful conference negotiation with the House and then another round of votes in both chambers on the new, reconciled legislation.
"My experience is, these things take a lot of time," said Harkin, a five-term Iowa Democrat, as he left a meeting with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), White House energy adviser Carol Browner and other Senate committee leaders.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) insisted that a final law is not necessary. "Oh no, no, no, no," he said in an interview last week. "Look, our goal is to pass it. I don't think we even have to have it passed, essentially. But our goal is to do that. And it's better if it is. But it's not catastrophic if it isn't."
What would be catastrophic, according to several climate advocates, would be a Senate vote before Copenhagen that falls well short of 60.
With the world watching Washington, an unsuccessful Senate roll call could sink the Copenhagen negotiations at a time when Obama is trying to rebuild trust after more than a decade of U.S. resistance to the Kyoto Protocol and the largely voluntary climate policies of the George W. Bush administration.
"An unmitigated disaster that almost certainly means no progress in Copenhagen, and probably no serious negotiations after Copenhagen until the U.S. political situation improves," Meyer said of a losing Senate vote, adding that such a defeat would likely punt progress in the international negotiations beyond the 2010 midterm elections.
"Everyone knows there can't be a repeat of Kyoto," added Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, referring to the 1997 Senate's 95-0 vote that essentially doomed chances of the protocol's ratification in the United States.
There are several other scenarios for the Capitol Hill climate debate to consider as Copenhagen approaches.
Should Reid and Senate Democrats find 60 votes before December, there is also an argument to be made for holding the bill in conference negotiations until after the U.N. talks conclude.
Here, Obama could demonstrate that he largely has the backing of Congress on the greenhouse gas emission caps, as well as other critical items like financing, trade provisions and offsets. The United States also would not be showing all of its cards, allowing it to negotiate with other countries while still having the ability to tweak the domestic legislation to accommodate the Copenhagen outcome.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said last week that Senate-passed legislation would be critical for success in Copenhagen.
"If the House has passed a bill and the Senate passed a bill and we're in conference, I think that works," Carper said. "If we're still struggling to get a bill out of committee by December, that doesn't work. If we're just starting to get a bill off the floor, that doesn't work."
According to Reid, the current Senate climate plan envisions all committee action being completed by the end of September. The Senate leader is also eyeing October for the floor debate.
But Reid has shifted the Senate climate schedule around several times this year already, and it is far from clear if Democrats are even ready to take up the bill. Past versions of cap-and-trade legislation have never gotten more than 48 votes, and an E&E analysis shows there are still about 15 moderate Democrats with significant concerns about the issue.
Yet Senate gridlock also does not help Obama headed into Copenhagen. Granted, the Senate could modify its bill to reflect the international talks. But developing countries would likely be less willing to make their own major commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions if the United States remains several steps away from doing anything itself.
Meyer said a bill that has not cleared the Senate creates "questions among other countries about whether President Obama has the full backing of Congress for his negotiating positions."
The complexities of the Capitol Hill process also loom over Copenhagen. Foreign diplomats and the general public have little understanding of the U.S. system, and any effort to tout something short of a final law is sure to be lost on most.
"The easier and more streamlined you can be, the more believable you can be in these negotiations, the more credible you are," said the Natural Resources Defense Council's Schmidt.
Obama also must be mindful of going to Copenhagen without a law and signing up for an agreement that does not have the support of Congress.
"He cannot risk bringing back an agreement and having the Senate and House both potentially saying, 'Sorry, go back and get more,'" the Environmental Defense Fund's Petsonk said. "That's why the best position is to have legislation pass both the House and Senate."
Others stress that the Obama administration does not need to have a law in hand in Copenhagen. Negotiators did not have laws before Kyoto was signed in 1997, but instead went back and dealt with the legislation and ratification in later years.
"It'd be an almost unfair burden if the United States had to have it signed, sealed and delivered when most others haven't," said Jim Connaughton, who served as the top environmental adviser to former President George W. Bush.
Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.