COPENHAGEN -- President Obama and congressional leaders can expect to have a new target completion date in mid-to-late 2010 for passing a global warming and energy bill after the U.N. negotiations wrap up here at the end of the week.
The 193 countries are likely to leave with an agreement to finish their work either at a June meeting or at the next annual U.N. conference slated for Nov. 8-19 in Mexico City.
Don't call it a deadline. But whichever date they pick, it will become critical for Obama back in Washington as he will essentially be putting his credibility on the line and pledging to the world that he can return to the bargaining table with firm commitments on how to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars in long-term financing to help developing countries cope with climate change.
"By coming, and assuming there's an agreement with a deadline, he's effectively committing himself to getting the job done, getting the bill through Congress and getting to a final agreement," said Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "He may not say that, but that's the message that will be heard."
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill tried for much of this year to get legislation to Obama's desk before the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. Had that happened, the outcome of these two weeks of talks in Copenhagen could have been the legally binding treaty to tackle global warming that many countries were looking for.
Instead, many key decisions will be punted into 2010 at the same time that Congress continues to plod through its legislative debate and prepare for midterm elections.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has saved floor time next spring for the energy and climate bill, and the trio of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Linsdey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are working on crafting a bill capable of winning 60 votes.
Coming out of Copenhagen, the three senators hope to have the U.N.-backed schedule in hand that they can use to push reluctant lawmakers into negotiations. They'll be making their case as diplomats fret that the U.N. negotiations may continue to be sidetracked if Obama and Congress do not have success.
"We are of course following the developments very closely because we know it has vast implications for the U.S.'s ability to deliver," said Anders Turreson, Sweden's chief negotiator and the leader of the European Union's climate delegation.
Kunihiko Shimada, a top Japanese international climate negotiator, said he hopes the U.N. talks can resume next summer at the same time Obama has a climate law in hand. But he said he is also aware of the stiff climb on Capitol Hill and thinks it is more likely that a final, legally binding agreement won't be ready until Mexico City.
"Realistically, that's what I expect," Shimada said. "But among the ministers, they expect by the end of June they'd like to see the final results. If the U.S. Congress can make its decisions by then, then we can make the big deal."
Longtime observers of Congress caution against putting lawmakers onto a firm deadline to finish their work, especially given other priorities and the election-year dynamics that will make it hard for Obama to find support among Republicans and moderate Democrats.
"Obviously it'd be great, but there's also a risk in setting a line in the sand," said Alden Meyer, international climate policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If you don't hit it, what does it mean? Generally, presidents need to be careful about laying down ultimatums to Congress to act."
Jim Connaughton, who served as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under former President George W. Bush, said it would be useful for Congress to finish by the time U.N. talks resume next year.
"Need? No. Strong imperative? Yes," Connaughton said. "It'd be odd to say you have to have a statement from the Senate before the president finishes up the international negotiations. That'd be odd. But why I think it's imperative is this time around, confidence in a climate agreement is going to depend on highly credible domestic programs backing up pledges by all nations, not just the United States."
Obama's pledge to the United Nations entails curbing emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. His team is also pushing on the ground here for significant commitments from the major developing countries, namely China, because their emissions will be the substantial contributor to the climate problem over the next several decades. In return, developing countries are counting on wealthy nations to make long-term financial pledges to help deploy clean energy technologies, curb emissions from deforestation and adapt to a changing climate.
The House-passed bill, H.R. 2454, and its emerging Senate counterpart, have about $300 billion over the four-decade lifetime of the cap-and-trade program for international issues through the distribution of valuable emission allocations.
Paul Bledsoe, a spokesman for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said there is a "natural shape to the calendar" in Washington based on what the deadlines are coming out of Copenhagen. He added that Obama does not need the final law to navigate effectively on the world stage. But the bill will need to be close if he is going to have credibility to make any significant commitments.
"If Congress is well on its way to passage of a mandatory bill, the administration can negotiate in all good faith," Bledsoe said. "It will matter a lot what they're able to get done in the late winter and spring as to whether that's the case."