WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's muted call for comprehensive energy legislation failed to sway a hesitant Congress on Wednesday, with hopes for approval before November elections fading fast.
In his first national address from the Oval Office, Obama said on Tuesday the Gulf of Mexico oil spill provided a chance to break the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and find new ways to power factories, automobiles and electric utilities so they emit fewer global warming pollutants.
But he offered no specifics, and the lack of guidance frustrated some supporters and lent little urgency to an issue that has fallen down a crowded list of congressional priorities less than five months before the election.
"Some say you've got to bring climate change to the floor of the Senate right now. I don't think there's 60 votes for a climate change bill," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a member of the Democratic leadership, referring to the votes needed to overcome Senate procedural hurdles.
In an effort to whip up support in Congress for an energy bill, Obama will meet leading Republican and Democratic senators next Tuesday, a White House aide said.
Obama missed a chance to push strongly for a comprehensive bill in his speech, settling instead for "a bland enumeration of alternatives," said Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
"The president's speech tacitly sounded the death-knell for the inclusion of serious climate change provisions in any energy bill that Congress might enact this year," he said.
After long and contentious debates on a healthcare overhaul and financial regulatory reform, Congress has little appetite for another major political battle that forces lawmakers to take difficult votes shortly before voters render verdicts on their work.
The legislative agenda for Congress is already jammed, as lawmakers try to complete work on the overhaul of financial regulations, confirm a new Supreme Court nominee, bolster job growth and consider possible action on immigration and taxes.
Senate Democrats will meet on Thursday to discuss their approach on energy and the environment, with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi hoping to decide how to proceed by July 4.
Obama's fellow Democrats are battling to retain control of Congress in November, when they face heavy election losses amid a broad wave of voter unhappiness over high unemployment and the stumbling economy.
Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said it would be hard to pass a comprehensive energy bill this year, but the oil spill could help galvanize support.
'DIFFICULT, NOT IMPOSSIBLE'
"It's going to be very difficult, but I don't think it's impossible," she said. "Big events like this move people, move the public and when the public moves, their leaders move."
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said an energy bill would take weeks of floor debate in a Senate that is already experiencing heavy fallout from the yearlong battle over the healthcare overhaul passed in March.
"It'd be hard to get all that done," he said. "I think we should take steps toward clean energy rather than try to do anything comprehensive."
Signs of election-year paralysis are already evident in Congress, where neither the Senate nor House has approved a budget blueprint this year and it appears unlikely they will.
"A Congress that can't pass a budget is going to pass the most expansive environmental legislation in decades within months of an election -- what are the odds of that?" asked Steven Schier, a political analyst at Carleton College in Minnesota.
The focus in Congress will be on the Senate, where global warming legislation has languished since the House narrowly passed a bill a year ago. So far, the 60 votes needed for any legislation has not clearly emerged.
The Senate has a few options. One likely outcome is that senators package a bill that gets tough on offshore drilling and also encourages more alternative energy sources.
A less likely outcome is that those elements of a bill are coupled with the comprehensive climate change legislation senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman are pushing to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide pollution by 17 percent by 2020, from 2005 levels.
"The president now needs to lay out the specifics. What exactly are the steps we know we can take now? What kind of sacrifices can be made? How can every American help?" said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
Republicans criticized Obama for using the Gulf oil spill for his own political purposes.
"The White House may view this oil spill as an opportunity to push its agenda in Washington, but Americans are more concerned about what it plans to do to solve the crisis in the Gulf," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.
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