WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is adding people to his team of advisers and activists to develop and expand his environmental program.
The group of Cabinet secretaries and White House advisers who meet regularly to craft the president's green agenda now numbers 13, double what it was during the administration's early days.
It is just one of the signs that the administration is stepping up its push to pass energy and climate legislation this year, as the Senate continues to wrangle with Obama's other top domestic priority, health care reform. The House already has passed a bill.
Since the summer, when everyone else's attention was focused on the heated town hall meetings over health care, Obama administration officials have been meeting with more than half the Senate, made calls to nearly 100 mayors in 17 states, and met with numerous governors, according to White House records. Their goal, according to Carol Browner, the president's assistant for energy and climate change, "is to get the bill moving and keep it moving."
"It's really engaging a wide array of people across the administration to make sure that we're answering the questions that the Senate needs answered and working with individual members as they think about how they can support comprehensive energy legislation," Browner said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's just grown and grown and grown, with more and more Cabinet agencies and secretaries wanting to be involved."
In the days and hours before the House vote in June, White House officials and the president himself pressed reluctant lawmakers to vote for the legislation. The bill passed narrowly, 219-212. In the Senate, the climb to the 60 votes necessary to assure passage, is expected to be even steeper, and it comes as the administration is under pressure to make progress on climate change before international negotiations in Copenhagen in December. The Senate bill would cut greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050.
The White House effort started this year. The first big meeting between administration officials and Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who introduced the bill last week, occurred over dinner in March at his home. Browner, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House science adviser John Holdren and State Department climate negotiators Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing attended.
That same month, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the top ecological boosters in Congress and Kerry's co-sponsor on the legislation, and Sen. Benjamin Cardin, another Democrat, were meeting with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to discuss the global warming bill when Obama dropped in to emphasize that it was one of his top priorities.
There also has been a permanent White House representative at a weekly meeting held by Boxer and Kerry of nearly 20 senators working to advance the legislation.
"Now there will be a more unified meeting process between senators and the administration in order to lock things in," said Kerry. "We are getting into the stage of negotiations where people need to close."
Browner met for 45 minutes on Thursday with three Democratic senators concerned about the cost curbing greenhouse gases will have on their home-state industries. Their votes are crucial for the measure to pass.
"It's important for us to get right from the senators their thinking," Browner said. "As the bill starts to move ... we want to make sure that we in the administration know what members are most focused on and what's going to be key to ensuring their support for comprehensive energy legislation."
How much support the administration is getting is unclear. Kerry acknowledged Thursday that there still was work to do. Boxer said during a television interview Sunday that she did not have the 60 votes. Hearings on the measure may also be pushed back to later in October to wait for an EPA analysis of the legislation.
Browner would not handicap the bill Thursday, saying only that she wanted the legislation "to be as far along as we possibly can be."
In a sign of how important a domestic bill is to the White House's efforts, Browner has no plans yet to attend the U.N. conference in Copenhagen, and she says she will not be going if the bill still is working its way through Congress.
"Obviously, we'd love to sign the bill" into law before then, Browner said. "I don't think that is going to happen."