President Obama gave a nod yesterday to a budding bipartisan Senate effort on energy and climate legislation during a New Orleans town hall meeting where he also pledged to push for the bill's passage once Congress finishes its work on health care.
"What I think we need to do is increase our domestic energy production," Obama said in response to a question about environmental policy from an audience member. "I'm in favor of finding environmentally sound ways to tap our oil and our natural gas."
Obama also mentioned his support for nuclear energy, one of two key points of possible Senate compromise as lawmakers look to pass a comprehensive energy and global warming bill in the coming months.
"There's no reason why technologically we can't employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way," Obama said. "Japan does it and France does it and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way."
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last Sunday floated the broad outlines of a legislative agreement on energy and climate change, with potential deals that would speed up permitting for new nuclear power plants and also expand domestic energy production. The senators have yet to nail down any firm plans on how they will craft legislation.
"I think the key here is broadening the base," Kerry said earlier this week. "And that's what Lindsey and I are going to work on doing."
In New Orleans, Obama said the White House is ready to work on a climate and energy package after the health care debate and indicated he knows the administration and Congress are in for a tough fight.
"There are going to be disagreements, and I'll be honest with you, folks in Louisiana, a lot of whom are employed by the energy industry, sometimes are going to be suspicious about, well, how does this affect oil and how does this affect gas. And that's legitimate. That's part of the give-and-take process of our democracy," Obama said.
"But I ultimately am convinced that we should be able to put together a package that puts people back to work, makes us more energy independent and saves our planet in the process," he added.
House Dems respond; bill by Copenhagen?
On Capitol Hill, House Democratic leaders yesterday addressed the Kerry-Graham partnership and potential addition of major nuclear and offshore drilling titles for the first time.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said it is "encouraging" that Kerry and Graham are moving ahead on nuclear and domestic oil and gas production. "As a supporter of increased nuclear and domestic energy production, I think there is receptivity in the House to additional discussion on these issues," Hoyer said.
"These conversations are productive and give further momentum to the effort to pass a comprehensive, clean energy jobs package before Copenhagen," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "The House has taken a bold step forward in this regard, and we look forward to reviewing what the Senate brings to the table."
But while the Kerry-Graham partnership offers Democratic leaders some momentum as they search for the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to pass a climate bill, it is far from clear how much new support it will yield. Several senators that E&E counts on the fence on the climate debate -- Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) -- have cautioned against jumping to any conclusions on whether the outcome will lead to their vote.
Murkowski met with Graham yesterday on the energy issue, but her spokesman, Robert Dillon, said she will oppose any move by Democratic leaders if they try to debate the legislation on the floor before a major round of U.N. climate negotiations this December in Copenhagen.
"The Senate is going to take the time to consider this issue fully," Dillon said. "It doesn't make sense to rush it for an arbitrary deadline."
That feeling has not stopped some top Senate Democrats to leave open the option that the climate and energy bill can be ready for an early December floor debate before Copenhagen.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she is planning to travel to Denmark for the climate talks but would abandon that schedule if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opted to start the floor debate on her bill.
"I'm scheduled to go, but I never say that, because what if I have to be here?" Boxer said last week. "What if climate change is on the floor that week? It could be."
Asked about the timing of a climate bill, Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle replied, "President Obama has made it clear that he would like us to consider health insurance reform, financial reform and legislation to address global warming this year. We will await action by the committees and hope to consider the global warming legislation as soon as possible."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said there could be time to turn to the issue in early December. "We're hoping by mid-November that we'll be finished with the health care debate in the Senate, so that might work," he said.
For now, Boxer is the only one of the five Senate committee leaders who has spelled out even a rough schedule for moving climate legislation. Boxer plans three days of hearings beginning Oct. 27, followed by a markup in November.
Just looking at the calendar, at least two of the weeks next month would appear to be off limits because of a Nov. 11-13 recess for Veterans' Day and another weeklong break for Thanksgiving.
Stuck behind health care
Efforts to pass health care also continue to gobble up the time of influential senators and committees that also are engaged on the climate issue. Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), for example, has said he will mark up language on the global warming bill that deals with international trade and emission allowance allocations.
But asked about his plans for the climate bill, Baucus on Wednesday said the timing is up to Reid. "That's a leader's call," Baucus said. "I just don't know. Frankly, I think health care reform is going to take a little longer than people think."
Other members of Baucus' committee also remain preoccupied with health care, including Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
Rockefeller said the Commerce Committee will act on the climate issue. "We're going to do our part," he said. Pressed for any specific schedule, he said only, "We're doing health care now."
Lincoln said that she is gearing up for action on her pieces of the climate bill, though she is still "looking for dates" for those hearings.
Bingaman's committee has already adopted its pieces of the energy bill earlier this year (S. 1462). His committee held a hearing this week on the economic modeling of climate legislation and has another scheduled for Wednesday on the debate over how to distribute emission allowances among the regulated industries.
"We're doing what I think is responsible, which is trying to understand the issues that are involved, particularly with the House-passed legislation," Bingaman said. "We'll see where that leads."
Across Capitol Hill, some House Democrats would like to see the Senate get moving.
"I just hope they can move as quickly as possible," Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a lead author of the House-passed bill, said yesterday. "From my point of view, I'd like to get a bill pretty far along, if not passed, by the time of the Copenhagen conference."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the long-term prospects for the climate and energy bill rest on Obama. "A lot of what happens in the end will depend on how hard the president wants to push one of his top priorities," Cummings said. "I think if the president gets involved, even if it comes over to the House, it has a better chance, a much better chance of having some success if he gets heavily involved."
"If it's lightweight interaction," Cummings added, "I think it has problems."
Obama personally lobbied a number of reluctant House Democrats in the closing days before the House floor vote earlier this spring. But in the Senate, the president has been focused on health care, leaving most of the global warming work to top administration advocates like White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner.