WASHINGTON – After a hard-fought victory on health care reform, President Barack Obama's allies in Congress are pledging to move forward on climate change -- but some environmentalists are skeptical.
Twenty-two Democratic senators have signed a letter calling for climate legislation within the year, although some observers question if the White House will want another divisive vote as November midterm elections approach.
Senator John Kerry, the chief architect of climate legislation, said Monday that White House officials can now "pour their energy and attention" into the issue after Sunday's down-to-the-wire vote on expanding health care coverage.
"In the wake of health care's passage, we have a strong case to make that this can be the next breakthrough legislative fight," the Massachusetts Democrat argued.
"Climate legislation is the single best opportunity we have to create jobs, reduce pollution and stop sending billions overseas for foreign oil from countries that would do us harm," Kerry said.
"If we sell those arguments we've got a winning issue on jobs, on security and on public health. This can happen."
The House of Representatives in June approved a bill that would start the country's first nationwide "cap-and-trade" system that restricts carbon emissions blamed for global warming and allows trading in credits.
The Senate has yet to offer companion legislation, despite pressure that had been on the United States to finalize an action plan before December's climate summit in Copenhagen.
Unlike health care, which split on sharply partisan lines, Kerry voiced confidence in winning Republican support. He is working on climate legislation with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a vociferous foe of Obama's health care plan.
But the odd-couple alliance, which also includes independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has raised concern among some green groups.
Some greens were already disappointed with the House bill, which would curb emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels -- much less than promises by the European Union and Japan that use a 1990 baseline.
Kerry and Graham have sought support by meeting with leaders of businesses that have concerns about the legislation including oil companies.
The legislation is likely to back nuclear energy and offshore oil drilling, anathema to some environmentalists, and may reduce the reliance on a cap-and-trade system.
"If the senators feel it's their job to move from what was one of the biggest corporate giveaways in American history to make something that's even more friendly to polluting industry, that would be a huge mistake," said Nick Berning, director of public advocacy at Friends of the Earth.
But Eric Haxthausen, director of US climate policy at The Nature Conservancy, said it only advanced the cause of climate legislation for environmentalists and industry to work together.
"It's tempting to say that you're watering this down. But what's important is the fact that you can get an engagement from a sector that hasn't been engaged in the process," he said.
Despite Graham's support, most Republicans remain opposed to curbs on carbon emissions, which they argue would harm an already fragile economy.
Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it would be "enormously complicated" to draft a climate and energy bill that satisfies all sides.
"There may or may not be time for another initiative" after health care, Lieberman said. "There's not a lot of time between now and when legislators have to get serious about elections."
Climate change is not the only issue on which Obama's base is seeking action.
Tens of thousands marched in Washington on Sunday to seek reforms to help the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants. On Monday, the Senate took up reforms of the banking sector that helped trigger the global economic crisis.
Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expected Obama to play tough on financial reforms, daring the Republicans to appear to side with the banks.
"But climate change and immigration will require serious Republican cooperation. I don't see that developing anytime soon," Mann said.
© AFP 2017