WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, weighing in on the Senate’s efforts to pass a climate change bill, gathered Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday to try to jumpstart an overhaul of U.S. energy policy.
Obama called the meeting at the White House with influential senators and members of his cabinet to reinvigorate one of his top domestic and foreign policy priorities, which advisers admit has suffered from the president’s focus on healthcare reform.
The House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the United States to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, roughly the same goal Washington has backed at international talks to combat global warming.
But the Senate has not passed a similar measure and a bipartisan group of senators including Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham and independent Joe Lieberman are expected to produce a bill soon.
The trio did not present the outlines of their unfinished bill — they aim to have one by the end of the month — and no concrete breakthroughs happened during the Obama meeting.
“We’re moving very rapidly,” Kerry told reporters, adding there will be a series of meetings on the issue next week.
In his overhaul of U.S. energy policy, Obama wants to reduce dependence on foreign oil, fight global warming and increase the use of renewable sources such as wind and solar, while also building new nuclear power plants.
Some Republicans have said they would support less sweeping measures but Graham said there would not be enough Senate votes for a bill that did not include steps to fight climate change.
“There’s not 60 votes for energy only,” he said of a bill that would focus solely on mandates for renewable power. “Only when you marry up climate change, cleaning up the air, with energy independence will you get the transformational aspects ... that I’m hoping for.”
A U.S. law is seen as a key ingredient for an eventual U.N. agreement to follow up on the emissions-capping Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012. The Senate’s failure to pass a bill hampered the U.S. position at talks in Copenhagen in December.
Obama’s meeting on Tuesday — his first with lawmakers on a broad scale to discuss the Senate legislation — came just as China and India joined almost all other big greenhouse gas emitters in formally signing up to the non-binding climate accord that was reached during the Copenhagen summit.
Senator Susan Collins said Obama, a Democrat, told the group he wanted a bill completed this year.
“The president expressed his strong support for a bipartisan effort to establish clean energy incentives that will create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” a White House aide said.
“(The senators) agreed to continue the dialogue about a path forward for comprehensive energy legislation.”
Lawmakers must move fast if the bill is to get an airing before summer, an unofficial deadline looming before intense campaigning starts for congressional elections in November that could change the balance of power in both houses.
Lieberman said the meeting showed Obama would make the bill one of his major goals this year and he left open the possibility of a controversial cap-and-trade system for the utility sector — under a new name.
“We don’t use that term any more,” Lieberman told reporters before the meeting, referring to cap-and-trade. “We will have pollution reduction targets.”
The issue of a cap-and-trade system, which would let companies buy and trade permits to emit greenhouse gases, is one of several open questions about how the eventual law will look. Senate leaders are trying to accommodate requests from a myriad of colleagues to garner enough support for passage.
Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, who fears his state’s factories could shed jobs under a climate bill, is pushing hard for an import provision that would tax goods from countries such as China and India if they do not have strong climate controls.
“I think we’re very close on that,” Brown told reporters about the provision.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who has frustrated the Obama administration by backing measures to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases, is pushing for a bill that would focus on mandates for renewable energy rather than a cap-and-trade market on power plants and industry.
Obama has resisted calls to split the energy and climate aspects of a “comprehensive” bill, just as he has opposed splitting his healthcare reform measures into smaller steps. (Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Russell Blinch and John O’Callaghan)