Obama's Curious Climate Strategy

| Fri Apr. 16, 2010 10:39 AM EDT

The White House and Senate advocates are finally making a big push to get a climate bill moving. But has the Obama administration already blown its chances of passing legislation this year?

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected to unveil their much-anticipated climate and energy legislation in the coming days. (It was supposed to be released ahead of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, but Graham put the kibosh on that idea, and they're now reportedly introducing it on April 26).

In advance of the bill's unveiling, whenever that may happen, Obama's team has been making a big pitch for action. Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council last week called for "a new gestalt" on energy policy. And energy and climate adviser Carol Browner has made it clear that the White House wants comprehensive legislation that tackles the problem of climate change, not just a narrowly focused energy bill. But some Senate watchers are wondering whether the administration made a big strategic blunder. The two best bargaining chips the White House had to offer wary senators, especially Republicans—that is, expanded offshore drilling and incentives for nuclear power—have already been given away.

It's interesting to contrast the Obama administration's strategy on climate with the one it followed to advance health care reform—which, despite the rollercoaster ride of setbacks and controversies, was ultimately successful. Obama didn't present Congress with draft health care legislation, but he did lay out a clear set of principles that he wanted the legislation to contain. When it came to flashpoints like the public option, he refrained from making such proposals a deal-breaker, but nor did he abandon them prematurely. And unlike health care, where it was possible to make significant reform without the public option, a climate bill that doesn't include a meaningful cap on carbon emissions isn't a climate bill at all.

On climate, however, Obama has handed the bill's opponents two major concessions: Massive financial incentives for nuclear power, and a significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. And as far as anyone knows, he hasn't extracted any concrete commitments in return. "I don't know what the Obama strategy is," says David Jenkins, government affairs director at Republicans for Environmental Protection. If fence-sitting senators know that oil drilling and nuclear incentives are going to happen with or without their vote on climate, says Jenkins, "Where's the incentive for them to do something about climate?"

"It's not clear to me that [these concessions] pick up any votes," adds Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation.

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The White House insists that its offshore drilling announcement "wasn't a matter of horse trading." But there were a number of potential political payoffs to the move. The expansion of offshore drilling provides cover for moderate, pro-drilling Democrats like Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), and could possibly bring along a few moderate Republicans like Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.) and drilling fans like Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Expanding drilling now could also undercut one of the key attacks expected from the "drill, baby, drill" crowd this summer, when gas prices are expected to spike again. And it allows Obama to present himself as a centrist on climate and energy issues. "The president has made it clear that he is not going to be painted by Republicans as pursuing a lefty climate and energy agenda," says Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

But in staking out ground in the center, is Obama losing the left? Ten coastal progressives—who would normally be considered safe supporters of a climate bill—have signaled that the drilling measures could be a deal breaker for them. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told reporters on Tuesday, "If we don't get very significant alteration of the drilling issues, they will probably lose my vote."

So far, Obama's grand overtures to opponents of the climate bill haven't noticeably changed the state of play in the Senate. Kerry said earlier this week that "there are still some hurdles" to crafting a filibuster-proof bill. But if he and his colleagues don't put something on the table soon, the Senate could well move forward with an energy-only bill that sets the climate fight back significantly, with weak provisions for renewable energy and more giveaways to nuclear power, oil, and gas.

Yet the White House appears to be continuing with its all-carrot-and-no-stick approach. The administration still hasn't given Congress a detailed picture of major elements it would like to see the legislation contain, and Browner has indicated that it doesn't intend to do so. In fact, she's said the White House has been "encouraged by the work" of Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman, despite mounting worries that they've run out of time to pass legislation this year. Will Obama's political calculation pay off at the eleventh hour? With the clock running out, we'll soon know the answer.

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