Democrats Press Obama on Climate
Senate Democrats, business groups and environmentalists are pressuring President Barack Obama to break the climate change logjam — saying only his personal intervention can save splintering efforts to pass a bill this year.
Obama's senior staff has been in contact with Senate Democrats to figure out a way to woo Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) back into the process after he bolted over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's determination to push for an immigration overhaul before the November midterms.
But senior White House officials have been reluctant to directly confront Graham, a key Republican bargaining partner on a handful of hot-button issues, including the closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility — and that's prompting increased pressure from reform supporters.
"We think this presents a great opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate leadership in bringing the parties back to the table," said Mindy Lubber, co-director of We Can Lead and president of Ceres, a coalition of 200 pro-reform business groups that includes Nike, Starbucks and Sun Microsystems.
At the moment, that isn't happening. Neither Obama nor Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Graham's best friend at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., have contacted the South Carolina Republican since he withdrew support on Saturday, according to people familiar with the situation.
Instead, administration officials have publicly expressed sympathy for Graham's precarious political situation in South Carolina, while privately expressing confidence that he'll eventually return to the fold.
Another possible scenario, according to people close to the situation: Administration officials are keeping their interactions with Graham quiet, to save him from attacks by home state conservatives who think he’s too cozy with Democrats.
"The White House needs to be more engaged," said a Democratic leadership aide, reflecting the views of several other staffers who spoke with POLITICO on condition of anonymity.
"There comes a time in any major legislative initiative when the President can help bridge institutional differences in the Congress, and it's time now for everyone to come to the table and have a level-headed conversation about next steps," said Tony Kreindler with the Environmental Defense Fund, which backs the bill-drafting effort by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Graham.
But Obama isn't eager to jump into the scrap between Graham, who wants immigration reform off the table as a prerequisite to his involvement on climate, and Reid, who signaled his determination to prioritize immigration reform in a speech to a largely Hispanic crowd in Nevada earlier this month.
"Reid is doing what he has to do for Nevada politics," said an administration official on condition of anonymity, "but everyone knows energy is ready to go and will move first."
Reid spokesman Jim Manley dismissed that argument, calling it "absolutely ridiculous."
But a person familiar with Reid's thinking says the leader, facing a tough re-election fight, believes his pro-reform push will actually hurt him with white independent swing voters in the state.
"He's already doing very well with Hispanics," the person said.
The administration hasn't adopted an entirely hand's-off attitude, keeping close tabs on the efforts of Kerry and Lieberman to bring back Graham. In a sign of progress, a draft of the bill outline which the senators were supposed to unveil Monday was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency for analysis, which should take more than a month.
But Hill Democrats say they are annoyed that White House officials have refused to explicitly commit to major pre-midterms push on the bill in recent days.
On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a major reform supporter, predicted a bill would pass - but declined repeated requests to say if it could be done this year while Democrats have big majorities in both houses.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt brushed aside the criticism, saying that Obama's trip to the Midwest - which included trips to a wind turbine blade factory, biofuels facility and organic farm - proves his green bona fides.
"The President believes we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil and transition our nation to a clean energy economy that will create jobs that can't be exported," LaBolt said.
"If anyone doubts that commitment, they should look at his call for a comprehensive energy and climate bill just yesterday in Iowa," he added. "The President is encouraged that Senators Kerry Lieberman and Graham have reached agreement on a policy that would achieve these goals - and the administration has been in close touch with Senators and staff to offer any needed assistance as the negotiations continue to find a path forward for the legislation."
Still, the pressure is mounting. The New York Times prodded Obama to act more decisively in its lead editorial on Monday, and columnist Thomas Friedman ratcheted up the pressure on Wednesday in a piece that didn't go unnoticed in the West Wing.
"[I]t would be insane to let this effort fail," wrote Friedman, who thinks Obama's advisers are worrying too much about being associated with a bill that could raise energy prices in the short term.
"This is a big leadership moment," he added. "He needs to confront it head-on, because - call me crazy - I think doing the right and hard thing here will actually be good politics, too.I'd love to see the president come out, guns blazing."