Cautious Obama joins climate fray

President Barack Obama stepped gingerly into the Capitol Hill climate-change fight Tuesday, but an all-out White House push does not appear to be in the offing this year as other legislative priorities and the sagging economy command the president’s political capital.

Obama hosted a bipartisan White House meeting Tuesday afternoon with roughly 15 senators and several Cabinet officials to discuss Senate efforts to craft a compromise climate change and energy bill.

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Attendees included the Senate trio taking the lead in that chamber — John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — as well as Republicans including Judd Gregg (N.H.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Richard Lugar (Ind.).

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed the importance of the meeting with lawmakers, comparing it to a Monday meeting on immigration reform with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Graham that was postponed. Immigration reform is not considered likely to move in Congress this year.

Gibbs told reporters that the purpose of both meetings was to get “an update from bipartisan lawmakers on a series of proposals and get an idea of where those are.” When asked if it is realistic to think that Congress could get anything done on climate legislation this year, Gibbs said that the “coalition” of Kerry, Graham and Lieberman “demonstrates that yes, it is certainly possible to do that.”

While Gibbs said Obama “strongly believes that we need to get something done” on energy legislation, he seemed reluctant to embrace the idea that the president would take the lead on the issue.

Obama has highlighted energy and climate change repeatedly in recent weeks, talking up what he says will be the economic benefits of transitioning to low-carbon energy sources and building up those industries in the U.S.

But at the same time, climate legislation — which faces strong GOP resistance — must compete for time with the continuing healthcare debate, as well as other priorities like Wall Street reform legislation and various items on the Democrats’ “jobs agenda.”

Also, nations probably will not be able to craft a final international climate treaty this year as United Nations-based talks drag on. European Union climate chief Connie Hedegaard said Tuesday that a final deal is unlikely to emerge from a major U.N. climate conference in Mexico late this year, which could take pressure off U.S. efforts.

But Kerry — who is at the helm of Senate efforts to salvage a compromise bill this year — and other climate advocates were quick to call the meeting with Obama a sign that the White House is engaged.

“I think the president has called the meeting because he wants us to move, because he wants this on the agenda,” Kerry told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol before the meeting. Kerry said he is “glad to see the president involve himself personally at this point.”

Green groups also praised the White House event.

“The national spotlight may be on healthcare, but the bipartisan clean energy bill is waiting in the wings and it clearly remains a priority for the president,” said Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation after the meeting plan was announced.

But Republicans who have expressed interest in forging an energy and climate deal nonetheless say that bad feelings over healthcare could make what’s already a long-shot effort on climate even tougher.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the Democrats’ plan to use budget reconciliation — a procedural maneuver that allows legislation to clear the Senate with a simple majority vote — for healthcare could hinder subsequent efforts on other bills.

“If the administration continues with its plan to jam the healthcare bill through the Senate using reconciliation, I think it will have an adverse impact on all of the legislative agenda for the year,” she told The Hill on Tuesday before the White House meeting.

Collins was slated to attend, as was Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). The two have teamed up to sponsor their own climate-change bill.

Collins said she met with White House energy and climate czar Carol Browner on Monday at Browner’s request, and overall, administration officials say they are continuing to focus on climate and energy legislation.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters Tuesday that moving forward with a broad energy package is a priority for Obama. “He has been engaged on these issues from day one, and his administration continues to be engaged,” Salazar said Tuesday morning.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said it remains to be seen whether the White House will spend political capital on climate legislation. “It’s too early to tell,” Brown told reporters. “My guess is they will, but we have got things bigger than that now — we’ve got the healthcare bill and the focus on jobs.

“But climate change to me is a jobs bill first and an environmental bill second,” added Brown, who is active in trying to ensure that any climate bill provides protections for domestic manufacturers.

Lieberman said Tuesday that he, Graham and Kerry hope to unveil a draft bill before the Easter recess. Details of their measure have been sparse and the plan remains under construction. But the Senate trio said they are abandoning the sweeping “economy-wide” cap-and-trade plan the House approved.