Kerry: Health Care Debate “Flexes Muscles” for Climate Change Bill

By ABC News' Elizabeth Gorman

Shadowed by the national debate on health care, time is running out for Congress to pass a climate change bill before a key climate change summit that takes place in Copenhagen this year.

In regards to the likelihood of passing climate change legislation, U.S. Interior Sec. Ken Salazar said on Tuesday that all focus is "on this crusade for health care reform for the country, and that's where our time and energy will go for the days ahead."

Salazar added that even so, "We want both [healthcare and climate bills]."

But today Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told ABC News he believes the health care debate actually helps the momentum of climate change legislation -- rather than detract from it.

"I think the health care debate in the end may help people flex their muscles a little bit and understand what can be achieved," he said at a talk today on climate change and national security at the George Washington University, co-sponsored by the American Security Project.

"I don't believe the health care debate is detracting at all from the climate change thing. I know some pundits try to assert that. I just don't believe that," Kerry said in a bout of optimism.

That may prove unrealistic. The fierce health care debate foreshadows the difficulty of passing a green bill in Congress.

"After the last few months of the health care – I was going to say debate, but demagoguery -- that we've seen, we don't know what's coming," Kerry said.

"Rest assured we know what's coming when the Senate takes up climate change legislation. In this atmosphere in fear and political fear mongering, we can be certain we're not going to pass strong legislation without a fight. And make no mistake the other side is already geared up," he said.

Last June the House narrowly passed a bill that cuts U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 relative to its levels in 2005. In the Senate, it's still being debated, and some environmental leaders are pessimistic that a bill will be ready for the United Nations climate summit taking place Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen.

"Health care is probably going to be dealt with first. The chances of Senate passing a bill and the bill getting reconciled fast enough for the bill to be ready for Copenhagen, the chances don't look very good," said Michael Oppenheimer, climate change scientist at Princeton University and co-author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who also spoke today.

Kerry said the drafting of a green bill in the Senate was delayed by Sen. Ted Kennedy's passing, and that he hopes the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will roll out a climate bill before the Copenhagen deadline.

"My hope is that it will be bold. I know we're not going to achieve in Copenhagen what the science says we ought to. I understand that," Kerry said. "But if we get started, that's OK."

Kerry compared warnings of climate change by environmental scientists to the warning signs the Bush administration received before the attacks on 9/11.

"We all know about the August 2001 memo warning Bush that terrorists were determined to strike in the U.S.; 36 days later they did. Today scientists are warning us that climate change is arriving faster than expected and stronger than expected. Time is short. These are our warnings. This is our August memo," Kerry said.

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