"The Danes, the Chinese, the Europeans, the Australians, the Japanese—everybody is almost singularly focused on what is the United States going to bring to the table," said Jake Schmidt, international policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Obama and congressional leaders say their goal is to pass a new climate law by the Copenhagen talks, a Herculean accomplishment, given the dynamics in Congress and given that there are only five months left before diplomats head to Denmark. But some veteran negotiators and longtime climate observers say U.S. politicians do not need to be so far along in the legislative process.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), for example, warned in an interview last week that Congress would be putting too much faith in developing nations by passing a law without also getting agreement from Beijing, New Delhi and other major foreign capitals.
"Let's say, for instance, we did pass a bill here, and we go to Copenhagen, but the Chinese continue to take the position we've had a century of development and they need time to catch up, and we also have to pay for the means of what they want to do," Lugar said. "This would be very disillusionary to most Americans, who say, 'Well, we've been had. There never was a political will.'"
For the president, now is the time to talk tough on climate and urge lawmakers to wrap up their work by December. Momentum matters as Congress juggles a plethora of his top priorities, from health care reform to Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court.
And if all goes according to plan and the votes line up, Obama would be able to cross off one of his top legislative agenda items before the 2010 midterm campaign starts.
On the world stage, the president would be able to hold up a U.S. law that signals to the developing nations that the United States has for the first time committed to mandatory emission caps, while also giving a clear picture of how much money those countries can expect for help on adaptation, clean energy technologies and reducing deforestation.
"It lets the Obama administration go to Copenhagen with the best story to tell on domestic action," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
'Some skin in the game'
Congress responded to the first part of Obama's strategy last month with a narrow 219–212 House victory on a sweeping energy and climate bill that includes emission cuts of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and a midcentury 83 percent target. It also offers some $600 million in clean-energy technology support to developing countries, as well as guidelines for countries that want access to what is projected to be a multitrillion U.S. carbon market.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last week during the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, that the House bill demonstrates that the United States has "some skin in the game."
"I know it was important to the president to have that step through the House of Representatives before he got here in order, I think, to show a strength in hand in dealing with developing nations," Gibbs said.
And with all eyes now on the Senate, administration officials are still pushing for a law by December.
"I would love to have as much progress on the law by the time of Copenhagen as possible," Todd Stern, Obama's top climate diplomat, said in an interview last month following a Senate briefing. "If it can be done by Copenhagen, that would be great."
Stern and others also recognize the political reality on Capitol Hill, which does not bode so well for a finished product in time for Copenhagen.
Consider Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D–Iowa), who was circumspect last week about the chances of final action in time for the U.N. talks, considering the 60 Senate vote hurdle, let alone a successful conference negotiation with the House and then another round of votes in both chambers on the new, reconciled legislation.
"My experience is, these things take a lot of time," said Harkin, a five-term Iowa Democrat, as he left a meeting with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), White House energy adviser Carol Browner and other Senate committee leaders.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) insisted that a final law is not necessary. "Oh no, no, no, no," he said in an interview last week. "Look, our goal is to pass it. I don't think we even have to have it passed, essentially. But our goal is to do that. And it's better if it is. But it's not catastrophic if it isn't."
What would be catastrophic, according to several climate advocates, would be a Senate vote before Copenhagen that falls well short of 60.