President Obama's top climate diplomat acknowledged today that Capitol Hill delays over global warming legislation will likely push international negotiations to work beyond a December summit in Copenhagen on a new treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

"I think that we'll shape the thing to get as much done as can be done, and there are some pieces that need to get completed," Todd Stern, the State Department's climate envoy, told reporters. "But I think the mission is to get the most ambitious, most far-reaching accord that we can in Copenhagen, and to the extent there's some things that need to be completed after that, then that will happen."

Stern did not go into specifics about what items will be left for diplomats beyond December. But the diplomat said he agreed with U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer, who earlier this summer made a similar assessment that the Copenhagen negotiations won't be the end-all on a global warming treaty that applies to more than 190 nations.

According to the U.N. Web site, additional climate talks are scheduled for May and November 2010 -- though more negotiations are likely to be scheduled should diplomats fail to make enough headway at the end of this year in Copenhagen.

The prospects for sealing a deal in Copenhagen hinge in large part on how much the United States and China -- the world's two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases -- can agree on leading into the Dec. 7-18 negotiations. President Obama will head to Beijing in mid-November amid expectations the two countries may be ready to unveil some type of bilateral agreement on emission reductions and low-carbon energy technologies.

Obama also is planning to speak Tuesday at the United Nations during a special summit on climate change as diplomats look to kick-start talks that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this week are stalled.

"We are deeply concerned that the negotiation is not making much headway," Ban told the Guardian newspaper today. "It is absolutely and crucially important for the leaders to demonstrate their political will, leadership and to give clear political guidelines to the negotiators. They should be responsible for the future of this entire humanity."

Speaking today at a Washington forum hosted by The Atlantic magazine, Stern complained about the political fights in Congress in trying to pass cap-and-trade legislation, saying the status quo would hinder U.S. businesses' ability to keep up with their competition.

"We're going to spend the next five years pushing China and all the years after that chasing him if we stay where we are," Stern said. "The competitive threat to the United States is not that there is a modest price on carbon imposed in the context of cap-and-trade allowances. That is not the threat. That's modest, and to the extent that there are trade-exposed industries, that can be dealt with. That's not the threat."

"The threat," Stern added, "is we just stay in this ridiculous ideological box where people are just baldly playing politics with it or taking a know-nothing approach and saying the science that's clear enough isn't clear."

Some Obama officials had wanted Congress to send the president a cap-and-trade bill for signature by December, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday said the legislation may need to be punted into 2010 because of a packed agenda that includes health care and Wall Street regulatory reform. A Reid spokesman later walked back from that assessment, saying the goal is still to try to debate the bill this year.

Former Rep. Phil Sharp (D-Ind.), now the head of the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, said today that he is not ready to rule out action in Congress on a global warming bill. "Until things are pronounced dead, I found they never got alive in a major way on Capitol Hill until people panic and say, 'Is that the alternative?'"

Stern said his ability to negotiate in Denmark will be limited without a final law that spells out exactly how much Washington can commit to. But he maintained that it won't preclude the Obama administration from being a key player in the negotiations.

"It's quite central to being the U.S. domestic effort," Stern said. "If the bill isn't done, if it's moving through the tunnel, but it's just not done yet because it's big and complicated and health care is taking up a bunch of space, I think we can deal with that as long as it's moving along. I hope it's actually done. I think that's possible, too. But there will be negotiation ways that can be dealt with as long as we're pressing forward."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500