Congress Not Likely To Pass Sweeping Climate Legislation

As President Obama prepares to unveil his executive strategy on climate change, we look at the politics of the issue in Congress.

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And now to an issue that lawmakers are not spending a lot of time debating: climate change. Tomorrow, President Obama will lay out a strategy to address the problem, using executive powers. It's an admission that's sweeping climate legislation stands little chance of passing Congress as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Aides say Mr. Obama's plan includes limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The reaction from House Speaker John Boehner was blunt.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I think this is absolutely crazy. Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking the question, where are the jobs?

LUDDEN: Republicans have long derided Obama's green energy efforts as a job killer. This year, observers do detect a subtle shift, at least in tone. Even GOP whip Kevin McCarthy, the third most powerful in the House of Representatives, has taken pains to broaden the drill, baby, drill message. The first two energy bills on the House floor were on renewable power. GOP analyst John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie says there's good reason for this.

JOHN FEEHERY: I think the message learned from last campaign is you can kind of beat up on Obama all you want, but you also have to be less reflexively anti-environment.

LUDDEN: Feehery says renewable energy is popular, especially with younger voters. What's more...

FEEHERY: Most wind energy manufacturers are in Republican districts, and most wind energy production comes out of Republican districts. So for Republicans to be against wind energy, they're hurting their own constituents.

LUDDEN: Still, environmentalists are waiting to see if such talk leads to action. And the common ground only goes so far. A number of Democrats say a carbon tax is what's needed to really bring down greenhouse gas emissions. It's come up in talks on overhauling the tax code. But Feehery says anything called tax is a non-starter for the GOP. And fossil fuel interests are already gearing up in opposition.

FEEHERY: And I do think that there's a lot of industries that would have a heyday trying to kill this.

LUDDEN: Now, President Obama rankled environmentalists during last year's campaign when he was nearly silent on climate change. When he did talk about it during the State of the Union, he's told donors it didn't dial test well with viewers. Still, some polls show Americans do want action. And in a big change, Obama's advocacy group, Organizing for Action, aims to make climate an issue in next year's midterms.

It's holding local meetings and door-to-door campaigns to engage voters on climate and energy. It's also put out this online ad, mocking congressional Republicans who challenge the scientific consensus that global warming is largely man-made, like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONLINE ADVERTISEMENT)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Well, the climate's always changing. That's not the fundamental question. The fundamental question is whether man-made activity is what's contributing most to it.

SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: The Republican position of climate denial is completely untenable. It can not survive scrutiny.

LUDDEN: So Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse has taken it upon himself to give it that scrutiny.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you very much. I am back again to speak again about...

LUDDEN: Every week, to a mostly empty Senate chamber, he reels off stats from climate research, warns of the mounting dangers of global warming and taunts Republicans.

WHITEHOUSE: Let me respectfully ask my Republican colleagues, what are you thinking? How do you imagine this ends?

LUDDEN: Unless Republican lawmakers get serious about addressing climate change, Whitehouse predicts it won't end well, either for their party or the planet. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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