White House official laments healthcare bill obscuring climate push

A senior Obama administration official lamented Monday that even as the president has made climate change a priority, Capitol Hill has been dominated by the healthcare debate.

"We would have obviously preferred that healthcare would've been finished a long time ago, and we would be in an energy debate, but that didn't happen," the official said.

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The comment, made by an official in a background briefing for reporters, comes amid a wave of international criticism that the U.S. has disengaged on climate change. The president has said several times over the past few months that his top domestic priority is healthcare reform legislation and has yet to make a final decision as to whether he will even attend next month's United Nations Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

White House officials said they were pleased that the House has passed a bill and a Senate committee has also passed bills, but foreign leaders have questioned how much the U.S. can commit to an agreement without Congress making substantially more progress.

"It would be a mistake to conclude that the lack of a treaty in December was because the legislation didn't pass," one official said.

Officials noted that the "Senate is busy," but they said senior White House aides have met with more than 24 senators to work toward the bill.

When asked for a timeline on climate change legislation in the Senate, one official noted with a joke that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped to begin debate in the spring.

"The good news is spring is coming earlier and earlier in light of climate change," the official said.

Officials noted that as they prepare for the Copenhagen summit, they would need to submit target numbers for greenhouse gas emissions that are "consistent with the legislative process."

One official said the White House would make a submission, possibly a specific number, but they want to ensure that it "doesn't get ahead of or [isn’t] at odds with" what Congress is considering.

One administration official said the discussion on Capitol Hill has changed dramatically in the last six to eight weeks, and the White House sees hope for legislation.

"Most members are saying 'when' we get a bill, as opposed to 'if' we get a bill," the official said.