Obama's Climate Speech Reflects Washington’s Gap

Amy Harder
National Journal

A mere five miles separated President Obama from congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill when he gave his speech on climate change Tuesday at Georgetown University. But they might have well been on separate planets.

“I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from power plants,” Obama said in his most substantive speech on climate change as president. He signaled that he is moving forward unilaterally, in the face of congressional resistance to action on this policy.

“You’ll hear from special interests and their allies in Congress that this will kill jobs and crush the economy and basically end American free enterprise as we know it,” Obama said.

By the time the president gave that speech, Washington had already heard from those he implicitly referred to. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a floor speech Tuesday morning criticizing Obama’s “national energy tax.”

“If the White House moves forward with this war on jobs and raises the cost of energy, that would almost assuredly raise the cost of doing business—and that would likely put jobs, growth, and the future of American manufacturing at risk,” McConnell said.

Obama did say that he was willing to work with Congress on other ways to combat climate change. “I’m open to all sorts of ideas,” he said. “Give me better ideas.”

Better ideas that garner any tangible support in Congress are unlikely to surface anytime soon. Instead, McConnell and other Senate Republicans will likely seek to overturn EPA’s climate-change rules once the agency finalizes them, which is still years away.

A gap also exists between Obama and some of the more moderate members of his own party. When asked Tuesday about Obama’s plan, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is up for reelection in 2014, made it clear she was not necessarily on board.

“I have not even looked at that,” she said. “I’ve heard about it. The president and I have very strong disagreements on energy policy.”

That didn’t stop the National Republican Senatorial Committee from sending out releases Monday on Landrieu and other Democrats up for reelection, including Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, tying the Democrats to Obama’s climate agenda.

Yet Pryor also says he doesn’t know anything about Obama’s plans. “I haven’t had a chance to look at it,” he said Tuesday.

At Obama’s speech, the mood was jovial. The White House invited a few hundred climate-change advocates to attend the event, which was otherwise closed to the public. A small handful of lawmakers were also there, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Indeed, some say the gap between Obama and Capitol Hill may be irrelevant now that the president, after years of delay, signaled he was ready to move forward without Congress.

As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., put it, “Everything the president announced today, he can do on his own.”