President Obama refused to back down from his ambitious energy and climate change agenda during last night's State of the Union address, prodding the Senate to pass a comprehensive bill despite complaints from moderates in both parties that the issue is too big to tackle in an election year.
The president inserted climate and energy legislation near the top of his domestic agenda, urging lawmakers to shift there once they finish work on a jobs bill and new financial rules for Wall Street. Notably, Obama mentioned the energy and climate issue ahead of his health care reform effort that hit a major snag last week when Senate Democrats lost their 60-seat supermajority in the Massachusetts special election.
To widespread applause from Democrats, Obama said he was "grateful" to the House for passing its version of a global warming bill (H.R. 2454) last June. And, with a contingent of frustrated House Democrats cheering him on, the president nudged the other end of the Capitol to pick up its pace too.
"This year," Obama said, "I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate."
Obama insisted that the United States would fall behind its foreign competitors if Congress did not pass a sweeping new measure that limits greenhouse gas emissions. And he wrapped together his appeal to Democratic moderates nervous about the economy with an unexpected call on Republican climate skeptics to join in on the negotiations that could lead to expansions of domestic nuclear, oil and gas production.
"I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy, and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change," Obama said. "But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future. Because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."
Whether Obama's remarks will bear any fruit remains a wide-open question. Both Democrats and Republicans shouted and gave the president a standing ovation when he called for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." And a few Democrats, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, stood up alongside most Republicans when he said, "It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."
But there is little hope Obama will win over longtime Republican opponents. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a prominent global warming skeptic and the ranking member of House Energy and Commerce Committee, stood and waved to Obama when he mentioned the lawmakers who doubt the evidence on climate change. And several Republicans around Barton did not hold back in their laughter either.
After the speech, Obama's closest Senate allies welcomed the issue's continued status near the top of the White House agenda.
"I thought he was brilliant," said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "He made the point we've been trying to make for so long, that if America is going to lead the world in this decade, in this century, we better get going. Because if we don't, then other nations like China are just going to steal our thunder."
"President Obama ... threw the weight of his presidency behind a principled compromise that prices carbon to reduce pollution, invests in new energy, and also embraces nuclear, clean coal and even drilling," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a lead author of the Senate climate bill.
Kerry is working with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to produce a bill for Senate floor consideration before the end of the spring. To make any progress, the three senators must court a handful of moderates. So far, only a few are sending any public signals that their door is even open to negotiations.
"I like what he said about nuclear energy," said Sen. George LeMieux of Florida, one of the few Republican senators who has expressed interest in the climate issue. "I like what he said about drilling, if we do it the right way. ... I hope there will be some energy and effort on it. And I'm a person who's open to working on it."
"Probable? I don't know," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the co-sponsor of a "cap and dividend" approach that forgoes trading of greenhouse gas credits. "But I think it's possible. I think gas prices go back up, people want to see job creation, industry talks about how many jobs can be created when there's a more predictable price, when there's more predictability in the system, I think it's possible."
Earlier yesterday, Graham reaffirmed that he still supports placing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and would work to win over reluctant Republicans as part of a broader bill that also opens the door to more domestic energy production.
"To jump-start nuclear power, wind and solar and the green economy, you've got to price carbon," Graham said. "How you do it is subject to discussion and open debate. But the idea of not pricing carbon, in my view, means you're not serious about energy independence. The odd thing is you'll never have energy independence until you clean up the air, and you'll never clean up the air until you price carbon"
Graham noted, however, that he is simply skeptical of the cap-and-trade approaches taken in the House-passed climate bill (E&ENews PM, Jan. 27).
Several other key senators said they were skeptical that there would be significant momentum for everything that the president wants to accomplish on the energy and climate front.
Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) called the idea of a comprehensive energy and climate bill "important" and pledged to "try to find a way." But he added, "There's a lot to pass in nine months."
Baucus said he does not plan to mark up a climate bill in the near future. "We have to figure out some other big issues first," he said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) echoed a handful of senators who have questioned whether it is possible for the Senate to get 60 votes on the cap-and-trade program seen as critical for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Even with Obama pushing, Brown said he was not sure.
"He brought [climate] up because it's a great moral issue of our time," Brown said. "He wants to keep it on the agenda. We're going to do bits and pieces of it, major parts of it, even if we don't do the entire climate change bill. We're going to address a lot of these issues."
Brown acknowledged that an incremental bill may be in the cards for the Senate. "I think any approach we can do that we can put the votes together is the best approach," he said. "I'm open to anything."
Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) read between the lines of Obama's remarks to question whether he was truly pushing for the cap-and-trade program that most environmentalists want.
"I only heard him use the word 'climate' twice," said Murkowski, a possible swing vote on the issue who has been leading efforts to neuter any climate regulations out of the Obama-led U.S. EPA. "I guess what I took from it was his urging us to move on an energy bill that was more comprehensive, that's beefed up nuclear and offshore production, which I thought was very good. But if he was really urging members of the Senate to act on a cap-and-trade piece, I certainly didn't hear that part."
Murkowski said the politics of the climate issue have her doubting Obama wants to push lawmakers too far, especially given the House's narrow 219-212 vote last June. "Think about it," Murkowski said. "He also knows how popular that vote was on the House side. I think he realizes that in this political environment, and in this economic environment, in order to get the Senate to act on a very controversial issue, I think he was going to have to put his shoulder behind it and I didn't really hear that tonight."
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) urged Obama to scale back his effort on climate.
"I think this is a very difficult time, given the state of the economy," Bayh said. "And the lack of a firm commitment on the part of other nations. That makes it more difficult. That's not to say progress can't be made. If I were advising the president, I would focus on energy security, job creation in the energy space that would have the additional advantage of helping to address carbon emissions but do it an economically friendly way."
Leading Senate Republicans were quick to pile on too.
"Cap and trade is dead in the Senate," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"This year? Nah, not going to happen," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "It's not even worth talking about."
Reporters Christa Marshall and Allison Winter contributed.
Click here to go to E&E's "State of the Union 2010" special report.