WASHINGTON - - By brokering a climate deal in Copenhagen a week ago, President Barack Obama has committed himself to a more daunting task: pushing for comprehensive climate legislation in the Senate next year.
Although many senators, especially key Republicans, have shown little appetite for backing yet another ambitious bill in the aftermath of the polarizing health care debate, it is clear that enacting legislation to cap the U.S. carbon dioxide output and allow polluters to trade emission permits is essential to delivering on the pledges that Obama made to other world leaders.
In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Obama said, "There is no doubt that energy legislation is going to be tough, but I feel very confident about making an argument to the American people that we should be a leader in clean energy technology - that that will be one of the key engines that drives economic growth for decades to come."
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said the fact that "countries like China and India set carbon-intensity targets for the first time in history" should bolster the administration's legislative effort.
Since taking office in January, Obama and his deputies have regarded international climate talks as a way to get the sort of commitments from major emerging economies that would allow them to sell a cap-and-trade bill to skeptical lawmakers back home. As part of last week's accord, the four biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the developing world - China, India, Brazil and South Africa - agreed to list voluntary climate targets as part of an international registry and to allow third-party countries to scrutinize whether the four are making the emission cuts they say they are.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and a swing vote, called language in the Copenhagen deal allowing for verification of developing countries' carbon cuts "a very small step forward."
"Right now, the big question is whether the Senate, as a whole, can sit down and craft real bipartisan legislation that protects both the economy and the environment," Murkowski added. "We need to find ways to move forward in a bipartisan effort that makes sense for America, regardless of whether the rest of the world follows through or not."
In the wake of the health care debate, winning Republican support for such a bill is crucial, even if it might mean adding provisions favored by the nuclear and oil industry, or scaling back the legislation's scope.
And Obama has little choice but to press the issue. He and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged in Copenhagen that the United States would help mobilize $100 billion in annual funding by 2020 to help poor countries cope with global warming. Administration officials said a significant portion of the U.S. contribution would come from carbon trading markets where polluters would have to buy emission allowances from the federal government and offset some of their emissions by investing in forestry projects overseas.
Environmentalists and some allies on Capitol Hill are confident that Obama is invested enough in the issue to focus on climate legislation next year. Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, said last week's deal "helps us down the path to 60 votes by taking the China excuse off the table and teeing this issue up as a presidential priority for 2010."
Even so, says Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, senators will be watching to see whether the promises China and others made in Copenhagen get translated "into something real."