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Obama Needs a Stronger Veto Threat on EPA Regulations

By / 4.6.2011

Brinksmanship is the name of the game in Washington this week. GOP leaders are publicly shifting away from negotiation tactics and turning to endgame spin strategy in advance of a government shutdown, while President Obama continues working to secure a deal without staking out an early position in the blame game that’s soon to follow.

A perfect example of the GOP’s unanswered offense in this game is the timing of votes in both houses this week to strip the EPA of its ability to move forward with new greenhouse-gas regulations. There has been no shortage of Republican proposals in both houses of Congress to do this for months, plus a handful of Senate Democrats who also support some version of stopping or delaying the EPA climate rules. But what better time to bring up a divisive issue with no hopes for compromise than in the last hours of an overheated budget standoff? Tactically speaking, it’s a reminder of why Republicans are always so much better at strategy and spin than Democrats, but it could also prove to be another example of how their ideological extremism eventually undermines their strategic successes.

Already the White House is playing defense, trying to calm environmentalists after rumors that the administration has been using the EPA’s authority as a bargaining chip to secure a budget deal and avoid a shutdown. On Tuesday, OMB issued a policy statement warning that if the House measure ever reaches the President’s desk, “his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”

That’s fairly strong language for OMB bureaucrats to use, but it’s pretty pathetic as the only public response of the White House to direct attacks one of the most significant regulations issued by this administration. Much of the media coverage has interpreted the statement as a promise to veto the House bill, but it includes no such promise. As veto threats go, this one is half-hearted at best.

With the budget fight reaching a fever pitch and GOP leaders raising the stakes by bringing climate change into the game, it’s time for the President to take a side on this fight before votes are cast, not after.

President Obama should announce clearly and unequivocally that he will not sign any bill that delays, repeals, or compromises the EPA’s greenhouse-gas regulations, until Congress has passed legislation adopting some form of long-term national energy and climate strategy.

Here’s why: the EPA regulations are the last leverage he has left at this point to get any energy bill through Congress, and they may be one of the only political defenses he has post-shutdown for not reaching a budget deal with Republicans. Even entertaining the possibility of trading away EPA’s regulations for a budget deal is not only a loser’s hand in the short term, but it would be the end of any hopes he might have to move any meaningful energy agenda during his first term, and possibly his second.

For some presidents, calling for this type of statement and strong positioning might not be a big thing to ask for. But President Obama has shown consistently he prefers to lead from the rear, leaving the bloodshed to members on the front lines in Congress, many of whom are no longer around to fight after casting tough votes for last year’s energy bill. The administration’s reluctance to lead on climate and energy in 2010 gives congressional Democrats facing tough races little reason to think they will get any cover in 2012 for defending the EPA this year.

What’s more, President Obama faces two problems if he chooses to stand up more forcefully for the EPA’s regulations. His first problem is the perception Republicans are promoting that this is more simply more “job-killing” regulation heaped onto an already weak economy. That thinking has a number of vulnerable Democrats spooked, especially in the Senate, where a handful of moderates already co-sponsored a bill to delay the regulation for two years.

Obama’s second problem with trying to defend the EPA rules is that he has never strongly supported them up until now. The administration has soft-pedaled its commitment to the EPA rules from the beginning, presumably to use them for leverage to motivate industry opponents and their many representatives in Congress to support a less painful alternative, such as cap-and-trade. The fact that they did such a poor job of using that leverage to actually enact an alternative now leaves them stuck with regulations they have said they don’t want, and a Congress that doesn’t want them either, but also doesn’t want to give him a better alternative.

Anyone who thinks Obama will fall on his sword to protect the EPA rules in addition to passing an energy bill hasn’t listened to what he and his advisors have said about the rules for the last two years. You just need to look at the EPA’s official press release for its initial endangerment finding in December, 2009, which was supposed to explain why the regulations were so critical and necessary to mitigate the threat that greenhouse gases pose to public health and welfare. Instead, EPA pitched it as an unavoidable Plan B forced by a Supreme Court decision and Congress’s failure to act first:

President Obama and Administrator Jackson have publicly stated that they support a legislative solution to the problem of climate change and Congress’ efforts to pass comprehensive climate legislation. However, climate change is threatening public health and welfare, and it is critical that EPA fulfill its obligation to respond to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined that greenhouse gases fit within the Clean Air Act definition of air pollutants. (link here)

If anything, the administration seems even less committed now to greenhouse gas regulations than it did then. Carbon emissions aren’t exactly at the top of President Obama’s list of talking points these days. In fact, his recent signals on energy policy appear deliberately calculated to move away from climate change positions altogether in favor of arguments for energy innovation, job growth in clean energy industries, and (as of last week’s speech at Georgetown) energy independence.

Obama made a bold attempt to reframe the energy debate in his State of the Union address, but not once in that speech did he reference climate change, cap-and-trade, the environment, or the EPA. His proposal for a new “clean energy standard” that moves us away from older fossil-fuel resources over the next 25 years has not picked up much energy of its own in Congress, and the President has yet to fill in the details of the proposal, leaving congressional leaders struggling to make sense of it on their own.

It is still unclear whether President Obama believes his clean energy standard or any of the proposals he mentioned last week would be sufficient steps toward carbon reduction to justify trading away the EPA’s regulatory authority over greenhouse gases. It’s even less clear whether all of those things together would be enough for environmentalists to even entertain the thought such a trade might happen.

Presumably, the comprehensive energy bill that passed the House last year would have been a strong enough substitute, but Waxman and Markey are not committee chairmen anymore. GOP members in the House have turned back time and aggressively attacked the science behind global warming, forcing advocates to invest more in defending the EPA’s actions, which may make it harder for the President to make a deal that undermines those actions.

Regardless of what hopes environmental groups may have for moving forward on clean energy while defending the EPA at the same time, it may be necessary to put everything on the table if we want any forward movement on energy policy in the foreseeable future.

But for now, what’s important is there is no such movement to be seen yet. So whatever type of climate or energy bill might justify regulatory horse trading, now is the time for talking about it. Given the state of the budget mess and the absence of political will to tackle energy legislation, now is the time for backing up bold speeches with firm conviction.