Senator John Kerry has pledged to complete a framework of an elusive U.S. climate change deal in time for next month's high-stakes summit in Copenhagen, vowing not to let the world down.
President Barack Obama's election returned the United States to active global efforts to fight climate change, but a year later Congress has yet to make good on promises to set the first-ever US caps on carbon emissions.
After a lobbying mission in the US Capitol by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Kerry said Tuesday the Senate, while unlikely to complete legislation, would give US negotiators an outline before the December 7-18 talks in the Danish capital.
"We are engaged in the process that will hopefully put us in a position to go to Copenhagen with a sort of framework, or outline, or where the Senate will be heading in its legislation," Kerry told a joint news conference.
Kerry, a former presidential candidate who co-authored climate change legislation, said he told Ban that senators were "engaged in a very intensive process.
"What I wanted to convey to the secretary-general -- and I think it's important to all those taking part in Copenhagen -- is we are very serious about our goal," Kerry said.
He pledged the Senate would approve the actual legislation "as soon as practical" while also acting on Obama's other key priority: revamping the US health system to assist millions of uninsured.
The pledge comes days before Obama visits China, where climate change will be high on the agenda.
Much of the world has looked on in frustration as the United States and emerging powers such as China and India squabble over who needs to do more on climate change.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday she would even boycott Copenhagen without positions by the three nations, warning a failure of the summit threatened to set back climate efforts for years.
Ban, who has made the fight against climate change a central focus of his tenure, said he was encouraged by his day-long trip to Washington, calling a Senate framework a "sign of commitment" to the rest of the world.
"I have emphasized to the senators that US leadership is crucial at this time," Ban said.
"No country is more important than the United States in resolving this climate change issue. All eyes of the world are looking to the United States and more precisely to the US Senate," he said.
Climate legislation squeaked through the House of Representatives in June but is stuck in committees in the other chamber.
The House bill would mandate US reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2005 -- which some other rich nations say is not ambitious enough.
Senators from Obama's Democratic Party have tried to push forward, last week ramming legislation through the key Environment and Public Works Committee amid a boycott by the rival Republicans.
But other committees are still working, meaning it cannot come to a full Senate vote. Senator Max Baucus, a centrist Democrat who heads the Finance Committee, has pushed for more guarantees the legislation will not worsen the wobbly US economy.
Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, said other senators could estimate the work of Baucus's committee in the framework for Copenhagen. But he conceded: "It's not the best of all circumstances."
Senators did not specify how specific the framework would be.
Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said the Obama administration would take "significant risk" if it proposed numbers in Copenhagen before a clear signal from the Senate.
"Getting out in front of Congress could invite a backlash on Capitol Hill," Diringer said. "It could be like Kyoto all over again."
The United States took part in 1997 negotiations in Japan's ancient capital Kyoto that drafted the first treaty mandating global cuts in carbon emissions.
But the Senate failed to ratify it and George W. Bush strongly opposed Kyoto during his 2001-2009 presidency.
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