A White House decision to punt a pivotal energy and climate meeting slated for this morning has supporters of a global warming bill concerned that it could be even tougher to clear legislation this year.
"As if we had a week to burn," said David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.
President Obama was scheduled to meet with a bipartisan group of senators this morning to hash out a summer floor strategy on energy and climate, but his schedule was changed after the White House summoned Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- the top military commander in Afghanistan -- to Washington over a Rolling Stone magazine interview in which he and his staff criticized the administration.
The White House is trying to get the meeting rescheduled for early next week, spokesman Ben LaBolt said today, but he did not confirm a specific date.
Environmentalists say the delay does not reflect a lack of commitment by the president, but it could harm prospects for finishing a climate bill this year.
"It is a big job, and we're already very much behind schedule," Hamilton said. "The longer it takes to get into the guts of this, the harder it's going to be to get it done."
Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell said, "Obviously, it doesn't advance the cause. ... The clock is ticking. We all know that."
Senate Democrats have signaled that they need presidential leadership before they can move forward in a compressed legislative schedule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that his strategy for passing legislation will depend heavily on how much political capital Obama is willing to invest in the effort (E&ENews PM, June 22).
Still, Obama and his staff have insisted that the White House is committed to getting a comprehensive bill across the finish line this year. "The Senate has an opportunity before the August recess and the elections to stand up and move forward on something that could have enormous, positive consequences for generations to come," Obama said yesterday after meeting with his Cabinet.
Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said there is a "plus side" to the delay, because it will offer more time for Democrats to strategize prior to their meeting with the president. Senate Democrats are scheduled to hold another caucus on the issue tomorrow.
"I think the White House is doing a lot behind the scenes outside of the meeting that had been planned for today, so I don't think it'll delay things," said Environment America's federal global warming program director, Nathan Willcox.
But Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), suspects that the White House was trying to buy some time.
He said that adjusting the president's schedule to accommodate the meeting with McChrystal is a "convenient explanation, but the reality is that when it comes to the Senate chess game, nobody has been able to credibly put together an approach about how a climate change bill is coming to the floor in the Senate in July as of yet."
"My guess is, from their perspective, giving it another week, seeing what additional conversations might yield makes good sense to them," Ueland said.
Parts of Obama's schedule were not changed today amid the dust-up over McChrystal, including the president's plans to attend a meeting this afternoon with the first lady on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
But Weiss said that does not reflect on the president's priorities on energy and climate. That is a priority of the first lady, Weiss said, and "any married man will tell you that you try to always do what your wife says."
Senators who were expected to attend the meeting today were Democrats Reid, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Carper of Delware. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was also invited.
Republicans who were invited include Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Richard Lugar of Indiana.