How President Obama picked up the pieces on climate change

How President Obama picked up the pieces on climate change
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This article is part of a series on Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Russian social media is the modern-day Trojan horse Trump records robo-call for Gillespie: He'll help 'make America great again' MORE's presidency, nine years after he announced his White House bid on Feb. 10, 2007. To read the rest of the series click here.

Harry ReidHarry ReidTop Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor GOP in uncharted territory rolling back rules through resolutions MORE delivered the bad news to the White House: President Obama’s hopes for the Senate to approve a historic cap-and-trade bill were dead.

Even with a near-supermajority of 59 seats, opposition in Obama’s own party ahead of the 2010 midterm elections meant the bill had no chance of passage, the Senate Democratic leader said.

It was a tough blow for a White House that was beginning to realize the limits of Obama’s power after the long battle over ObamaCare.

That fight itself had complicated plans for the president and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on climate change. A few months later, Democrats would be swept from their House majority in what the president described as an electoral “shellacking.”

But on climate change, Obama already had a backup plan in the works that would end up defining much of his second term, according to Carol Browner, who was Obama’s climate czar.

That plan was to use the president’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon dioxide from power plants, something Obama’s opponents say is so novel it’s illegal.

“You pick yourself up and move on, because there was another path, and we were already on it,” she said of the news from the Nevada senator. “And we knew that.”

Those power plant rules, which the administration is now rushing to complete, became leverage in Obama’s successful effort to finish an international climate deal in Paris late last year — a part of his legacy years in the making.

Obama’s critics argue that the shift to regulations points to Obama’s
shortcomings: an inability to negotiate with Congress and a reliance on executive action they say is unconstitutional.

“What they have attempted to do is do through regulations what they can’t do through legislation,” said Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeMcCain backs Pentagon nominee despite concerns over defense industry ties GOP senators ask Trump for meeting on biofuels mandate Trump feuds endangering tax reform MORE (R-Okla.), the Senate’s most outspoken climate change denier and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “The only way he was going to be able to fulfill this legacy was through regulation.”

The climate rules also are not a completed story. The Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked the rules from taking effect while lawsuits move forward. And they could be quickly overturned if a Republican wins the White House in the fall.

Either way, Obama’s allies say a president determined to combat climate change — even as he was focused on the recession and his signature healthcare law — will have no regrets.

“I think that he was frustrated in the first term. I think he went into the second term determined to not be frustrated,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyOvernight Energy: EPA releases ozone findings | Lawmakers come out against Perry grid plan | Kids sue Trump on climate change Congress must come to terms on climate change regulation EPA to repeal landmark Obama climate rule MORE said. 

“He was determined to look at what tools and authorities Congress gave us that we could now use to move forward. … That’s where we focused our entire effort.”


Democratic unease

A year before the cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate, the House approved it — at a considerable cost for many centrist Democrats who lost reelection bids in 2010.

Democrats were frustrated by what they saw as a missed opportunity. Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseTech companies grilled over Russian election interference Hitting GOP, Dems pitch raising 401(k) caps Democrats double down on calls for Congress to protect Mueller MORE (D-R.I.) said that, after a bruising fight over healthcare reform, Obama didn’t push as hard on as sweeping a climate bill as many Democrats wanted. 

“I think they felt like they had had enough conflict,” he said. “As a senior White House official told me, ‘We’re simply not going to take on any other fights we’re not sure we can win.’ This is after healthcare. I think they had conflict fatigue.”

Pelosi pulled out all the stops in pushing Democrats to vote for the House measure, something Democrats at the time said made other
contentious legislation more difficult to pass. 

Climate change was always and continues to be a personal issue for the former Speaker. But it was hardly a unifying issue for her caucus.

“This was the first time that more conservative and centrist Democrats had the opportunity to kind of look at each other and think, ‘Maybe we aren’t heading in the right direction here,’ ” said former Rep. Jason Altmire, a centrist Democrat from Pennsylvania who voted against the legislation.

“It got the whole discussion off on a highly negative foot,” said former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, another centrist Democrat who then represented North Dakota and also voted against the measure. “And much of the difficulty I think that the administration’s had in engaging Congress stems from some of the enduring political fallout from the cap-and-trade initiative.”

Obama’s big-ticket climate priorities weren’t a complete failure in Congress. The 2009 economic stimulus bill passed in the president’s first weeks in office included $90 billion in clean energy spending, the biggest single investment in clean energy to date.

But the failed House vote haunted his party. Altmire and Pomeroy both lost their 2010 elections amid a GOP wave in the House that cost Pelosi the Speakership and robbed Obama of his strongest partner on Capitol Hill.


We never pulled back

While Whitehouse faulted Obama for rarely mentioning climate change after the legislative failure, Dan Utech, a top climate adviser to Obama, said the White House never gave up.

He pointed to the president’s 2011 State of the Union address, when Obama called on Congress to pass federal clean energy standards for power plants.

“I don’t think we ever pulled back from the issue,” Utech said. “The president has been working this from day one in a variety of ways.” 

The back half of Obama’s term started with a major speech on climate change at Georgetown University in Washington. He pledged then to institute policies — on his own, if need be — to keep the Earth from warming.

That push kicked off a regulatory offensive, with the EPA and other agencies issuing rules on everything from methane leaks and vehicle emissions to the far-reaching carbon rule for power plants. The administration took up, critically, a major push for an international accord on climate change. 

Obama said the American commitment to the Paris negotiations was essential to reaching an international agreement to cut emissions. He set about bringing others on board, lobbying leadership in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere to come to the table.


Legal fight

Obama’s work on climate change isn’t complete, but in the final year of his term, the focus is shifting to the courts.

The Clean Power Plan, along with many of Obama’s other executive actions, faces a string of legal challenges from states and deep-pocketed interest groups. But Obama and the EPA won their first victory in that fight in January, when a court panel rejected a call to temporarily suspend the rule.

Obama and McCarthy have never doubted the legality or the impact of the rule. The president, McCarthy said, has a personal commitment to confronting climate change. 

Moments before finalizing the power plan, McCarthy said, Obama talked to her about the impact of the climate work on his children’s future.

“That was a pretty special moment for me, because he was very proud of the work we had done and I saw just how much he is personally committed to this and just how much he understands it’s about our kids and future generations,” she said. “It was a pretty special moment.”