President Obama is not expecting to have a final global warming bill signed into law by the time diplomats convene in December to hash out details on a new international climate treaty in Copenhagen, the White House's top energy adviser said today.
"Obviously, we'd like to be through the process," Carol Browner said during an event in Washington hosted by The Atlantic magazine. "But that's not going to happen. I think we'd all agree the likelihood that you'd have a bill signed by the president on comprehensive energy by the time we go in December is not likely."
But Browner said U.S. diplomats would still be in a good position at the climate talks as they work from the House-passed bill and further progress in the Senate. "We could be out of committee," she said. "Certainly, in the Senate we could perhaps be headed to the floor. There could be a leadership bill out there. We will go to Copenhagen with whatever we have."
Senate Democratic leaders in recent weeks have openly questioned whether the climate bill could get floor time before the major U.N. climate conference in Denmark, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the legislation's lead sponsor, has been saying for months that a final law isn't necessary for the negotiations. For U.S. diplomats, Copenhagen will be a test requiring them to work off a rough outline of what Obama and Congress may commit to without repeating the mistakes of 1997, when President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol without a mandatory domestic carbon cap in place and knowing the Senate would never ratify the agreement.
Browner, a former U.S. EPA administrator during all eight years of the Clinton administration, left open the door on a cap-and-trade system being set up if Congress never passes a law doing the same. She cited EPA's effort in the 1990s in issuing a model rule to help states set up a cap-and-trade system for smog-forming nitrogen oxides. EPA did that even though it didn't think it had the federal authority to set up a cap-and-trade system on its own, she said.
"There are ways it can be done," she said, before adding, "It's much better if Congress does it."
And she cited the patchwork of state-driven climate policies that could be wrapped together into one national system, from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast to the Western Climate Initiative, which includes several states and Canadian provinces.
"If all the states adopt the same program, then effectively, you can have a trading regime," Browner said. "That may be an option."
Exactly where the climate legislation would fit in the Capitol Hill schedule during the next year remains an open question, considering the political dynamics that come with Obama's midterm election. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn't outlined any dates for the floor schedule beyond his goal of moving on health care this year. And Browner shrugged off a reporter's question about how the 2010 campaign could influence the congressional effort on the climate bill.
"It should be done as soon as possible because it's going to create important opportunities," she said.
Browner praised the release this week of the Senate climate bill from Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), saying it was "a very, very important step" in the process. And she pushed back against several Senate Democrats -- Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, North Dakota's Byron Dorgan and Nebraska's Ben Nelson -- who say that Congress should move first on energy legislation and save the bigger climate package for later.
"That is not what we want," Browner said. "We think we need to get the whole thing done at the same time."
Action on Capitol Hill over the climate bill has largely been behind the scenes since the House passed its bill at the end of June. Many key senators have been wrapped up in the health care debate, but Browner said that shouldn't stop lawmakers from also moving the climate bill. "People can work long hours," she said. "They can work a couple of extra days. It's not impossible."
Asked about the president's role in the climate debate on Capitol Hill, Browner first credited the House bill's lead sponsors, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), in getting legislation passed this summer despite widespread skepticism that they couldn't convince enough of their own moderates and conservatives, let alone any Republicans. But Browner also said Obama deserves the biggest hat tip.
"His leadership and his commitment is why this happened," she said.
Obama also will make a "personal commitment" during the Senate debate. "I know we're willing to make it," she said.