The White House Climate Meeting: Obama Reassures Swing Voters

For the first time ever, the president of the United States invited a group of House Democrats to the White House on Tuesday to urge them to agree on draft climate legislation. The meeting achieved some concrete results, but more importantly it sent a powerful signal: passing a national law to solve global warming is a priority for President Obama and he is willing to engage in the process.

This was a welcome development. I have appreciated the fact that Obama endorses clean energy and climate legislation every chance he gets. But the meeting took it to another level. 

How Obama's Actions Can Reassure Swing Voters

Obama called the meeting to reach out to the 36 Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is currently revising the Waxman-Markey draft climate legislation.

Some swing voters on Capitol Hill are concerned that even if this climate bill passes the House, it will die in the Senate, and yet they will still be attacked for supporting it in the first place. They say, "Don't make me walk a plank if we are not going to succeed."

Having the White House involved helps change that dynamic. President Obama's engagement could reassure skittish lawmakers that he is seriously committed to passing climate legislation and will throw his support behind it.

The truth is we need presidential leadership to get a climate bill passed. We saw what the absence of leadership did for the United States during the Bush years: it wasted eight critical years and stalled Congressional efforts. Obama needs to get out front on global warming, and the meeting with the House Democrats showed that he is getting there.

A Climate Game of Chicken

And believe me, the world is watching Obama very closely. This week I met with Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister of the environment. As the host country for the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December, Denmark has a role in framing the conversation.

Hedegaard came to me in part for intelligence on what is likely to happen in the United States and how the White House and Congress are influencing one another.

As we lead up to the international talks, it seems like the key nations are holding off on making commitments until they see what the next guy does. Who will be the first to blink? As one of the world's leading global warming polluters, the United States should step forward and lead.

We should show the world that Congress has made a commitment to reduce our emissions here at home. If we don't, we will lose whatever "Obama bump" in credibility we got after the inauguration, and we could deeply undermine the world's next climate agreement.

Why So Much is Riding on the House Right Now

The best hope for avoiding that fate rests on the House of Representatives. Last year, the Senate tried to pass a law to limit global warming pollution, but this year it is emerging from the House, in part because of the bold leadership of Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, and in part because of internal structure.

The House has one committee with the authority to draft comprehensive climate legislation: Waxman's Committee on Energy and Commerce. In the Senate, five separate committees have jurisdiction over the issue, and when you have five different players, no one is on first. So the action has moved to the House.

But right now, the outcome rests on a few swing votes and on Waxman's efforts to secure those votes while still maintaining the integrity of the bill.

What could help persuade those swing voters to support strong climate leadership? Hearing from their constituents could help. If one of these committee members is your representative, let them know how much you care about this issue.

But getting a deadline from Obama would also help. I welcome what Obama has said about climate legislation so far, but I would like to hear him say that he wants Congress to pass a bill THIS YEAR.

That timeframe will reassure lawmakers that their climate vote is backed by the president. And it will also reassure the world that America is ready to enter the Copenhagen negotiations with firm commitments at home.