With Congress moving slowly on a measure to curb industrial greenhouse gas emissions, the United States may find itself with little sway at the coming international conference to construct a new pact aimed at easing global warming.
In less than three months, 120 countries convene in Copenhagen for action on a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
That meeting, a U.N. summit on climate change next week and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh days later are pressuring and imposing deadlines on Congress and the Obama administration, which has made work against climate change a top agenda issue.
The House passed a bill this year that would set the United States' first federal mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. Factories, power plants and other sources would be required to cut emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83 percent by mid-century. By comparison, Japan is committed to cut its emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.
But with the Senate bogged down in the fight over reforming the health care system, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week that the senators might not move on climate legislation until next year.
That was too much for John Bruton, head of the European Union delegation in Washington. He issued a statement that pointed out that by the time the Senate acted, the climate change conference would have been ended, the delegates gone home.
"The United States is just one of the 190 countries coming to this conference," Bruton said, "but the United States emits 25 percent of all the greenhouse gases that the conference is trying to reduce.
"I submit that asking an international conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position."
Even if a bill were to be voted out of the Senate, legislative rules would require members of both houses to reconcile differences in the legislation voted up in each chamber. That compromise must then be voted on again and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Unable to point to a start on climate change legislation in the Senate, the U.S. delegation in Copenhagen would be hard-pressed to explain to the world how it plans to meet any targets that are agreed to.
Pressure mounts in Europe.
Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who hosted a Thursday summit of European Union government leaders, said international negotiations on a new climate pact "are going too slow." Plans being drafted by the United States and other countries on implementing carbon dioxide cuts, he said, were insufficient to meet U.N. targets, declaring the EU needed to issue a "wake-up call" to action.
The European leaders issued a joint statement urging the United States and others to "urgently make ambitious commitments to deeper cuts."
The EU is urging other rich countries to match its pledge to cut emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.
And the Obama administration is adding pressure of its own.
Todd Stern, the State Department's special envoy for climate change, testified in Congress last week that it was critical for the Senate also to pass legislation so that the United States would have the "credibility and leverage" it needs to persuade other countries to reduce their pollution.
The White House and congressional Democrats have argued that legislation to reduce greenhouse gases would create millions of green jobs as the nation shifts to greater reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and development of more fuel-efficient vehicles and away from use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. Many Republicans are painting the new legislation as a huge energy tax.
Developing countries also will be reluctant to join a treaty without firm commitments by the United States, which until recently, was the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol because it exempted such countries as India and China, both major polluters, from any obligations. The Obama administration is determined that a replacement pact adopted in Copenhagen must require developing countries to cut emissions.
China has resisted making concrete commitments, saying rich countries have a heavy historical responsibility to cut emissions and that any deal should take into account a country's level of development.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has been working with Beijing and says he is "confident China is willing to take steps that will be meaningful" at the Copenhagen gathering.