Obama Gets Heat to Lead on Climate
"We're at a point where Obama and his team have to lead aggressively, or it won't come together"
WASHINGTON - With the climate change bill edging closer to the Senate floor, President Barack Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are resuming their well-worn roles as reluctant dance partners.
It's an awkward thing to watch, especially as the duo gain ownership of a controversial piece of legislation that could very well crash and burn over the next couple of weeks.
Both Democrats support the idea of a comprehensive climate bill but neither wants to take the blame if it fails.
Most Senate Democrats - including Reid - insist the president needs to take the lead, and they plan to share that message when they meet with him at the White House. A meeting had been scheduled for Wednesday but was abruptly rescheduled late Tuesday for early next week.
"I think it's pretty clear we have to do something," Reid told reporters Tuesday. "The question is what do we do. Now a lot of that depends on what the White House is going to do to help us get something done."
On big legislative items, Senate Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated by a lack of effective coordination with the White House, arguing that the administration at times seems too slow to respond to attacks or to proactively push the party's message. They complain that Obama didn't use all of his muscle until late in the game on health care reform, and they worry that the situation is being replicated in the climate debate.
"I think it's better if they engage earlier in some of these things," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). "They've done that sometimes, but I'm hopeful they do it now."
At a closed-door meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus earlier this month, some of those frustrations came to a boil. Several Democrats complained that the administration needed to do a better job of communicating the problems facing the Gulf Coast and the solutions that Congress could provide for them. Reid urged his members to tell the White House about their concerns - only to have several, including Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, complain that their phone calls were not being returned.
Whitehouse would not comment on the meeting, but others complained that the White House is disengaged on strategy. It's time, they said, for Obama to help pick winners and losers.
"The White House should be weighing in on the provisions of the three major bills that are out there right now and give us an idea of what they want in their final bill," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). "I think that would be a fair thing for them to do at this point. I'd like to see that."
The biggest decision before Obama and Reid is to find a sweet spot on a proposal to price carbon emissions. The House narrowly passed legislation last June that would curb greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but the Senate has been struggling for more than a year on whether the votes exist for a similarly controversial plan.
Obama pledged earlier this month to help round up the Senate votes on a carbon pricing measure but then created doubt about his commitment when he left out any significant mention of the idea during last week's prime-time Oval Office address on the Gulf oil spill.
A White House aide said Tuesday that Obama has been a leader on the climate issue dating back to his days in the Senate.
"He campaigned in support of comprehensive energy and climate legislation and has worked since the beginning of the administration to pass it into law," the aide said.
"The question now is: What's the vehicle to advance legislation in the Senate, and who will form the coalition? We will seek to answer that [next week], but there should be no doubt that the president intends to meet his commitment to find the votes."
While Obama and his Senate allies insist the president is well-positioned to pass the climate bill, several close observers of the Senate climate debate continue to call for stronger White House leadership.
"We're at a point where Obama and his team have to lead aggressively, or it won't come together," said Dirk Forrister, who ran a climate change task force in President Bill Clinton's White House. "Simple as that. Reid needs hands-on White House engagement in order to rally the votes."
"We can only succeed in passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation if both the president and the majority leader continue to work overtime with their colleagues to convince them to vote for a strong bill," said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski. "They've both engaged much more aggressively over the last several weeks. They need to do even more than that to get the votes necessary to win."
But Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Obama faces political peril if he gets too close to a legislative battle that he ends up losing.
"The more energetically and the more loudly the administration asks for the Senate to move ahead on climate change, the more they own the responsibility for rounding up 60 votes and the consequences of succeeding or failing in that effort," he said.
Obama also faces moderate Senate Democrats who don't expect the White House to change their minds. One of them, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, said, "I think people are pretty well settled on what they're going to do."
Like Obama, Reid also has a tough line to walk in leading the floor debate.
Energy is a major issue for him back home in Nevada, and he faces his own delicate two-step with a tough reelection campaign. He doesn't want to be blamed for the failure of the climate bill but at the same time wants to be seen as a leader on an issue that polls well with Democrats in Nevada.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the majority leader has deferred until now to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), letting them take the lead in finding 60 votes for their package, and that he has been trying to referee disputes among his committee chairmen, who have "strongly differing views" about the bill's contents and how aggressive it should be.
"Sen. Reid has made it clear to proponents on and off the Hill and at the White House that anything he brings to the floor will need broad bipartisan support," Manley said.
Reid has also been quick to put the burden on Republicans, most of whom oppose carbon limits that are central to Obama's environmental platform.
"A majority of Democrats will support moving forward," Manley said. "The real question is, will the Republicans?"
Christine Tezak, a senior energy research analyst for investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co., said she doesn't expect either Obama or Reid to take the blame for failing - if it comes to that.
"The reality is they're going to make it look like the Republicans are evil," she said. "I'm not expecting a teary-eyed mea culpa from either one of them on this."