Bam Goes Green

WASHINGTON  — President Barack Obama set out on an ambitious path to cutting greenhouse gases, ordering a review of Bush administration roadblocks on tougher state auto emissions rules and moving toward requiring cars to use less gas.

They are the latest in a flurry of directives from the new president to reverse policies set down by former President George W. Bush.

Obama said Monday that "America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources," declaring the federal government must work with the states — not against them — on tougher fuel standards for cars and trucks.

But as he focused on bringing campaign promises to reality, opposition was growing among congressional Republicans on another front: his $825 billion stimulus plan set to rescue America's stumbling economy.

The president was headed Tuesday to meetings with House and Senate Republican leaders on his massive spending and tax cut package, hoping to smooth their complaints that the measure was too heavily weighted toward government spending and too light on tax cuts.

In a major foreign policy initiative, Obama dispatched his new Middle East envoy, former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, on the administration's first mission into a region that has persistently swallowed the efforts of former presidents to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The decision to appoint a presidential envoy, and to dispatch him to the Middle East so early in the administration, is a sign that Obama intends to take a more active approach to the peace process than did his predecessor.

In an interview Monday with Al-Arabiya television, Obama said he felt it important to "get engaged right away" in the Mideast. He said he directed Mitchell to talk to "all the major parties involved" and that his administration would craft an approach after that.

"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama said in the interview.

Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel as an ally, and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that Israel has hard choices to make and that his administration would press harder for it to do so.

"We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," Obama said.

Domestically, Democrats in the House of Representatives appeared likely to jettison family planning funds for the low-income from the stimulus bill, officials said late Monday, following an appeal from Obama at a time the administration is courting Republican critics of the legislation. The provision has emerged as a point of contention among Republicans, who criticize it as an example of wasteful spending that would neither create jobs nor otherwise improve the economy.

Much of the funding in the Democratic bill is ticketed for health care and education, as well as money to weatherize buildings and build highways and other transportation projects. Congressional leaders have pledged to have legislation ready for Obama to sign by mid-February.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs left open on Monday the possible need for additional federal dollars to prop up America's crippled financial sector and said the White House economic team was reviewing proposals for a second intervention beyond the $700 billion already allocated.

There has been growing concern that the initial rescue package had failed so far to thaw frozen credit markets or halt fears of the future collapse of financial institutions. At the request of the just-departed Bush administration, Congress made the huge rescue package available late last year as major American financial groups were forced to close down or neared collapse.

Since then the U.S. economy has continued in its downward spiral, the worst to hit the country in the eight decades since the 1930s Great Depression.

On Monday, New York Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner won Senate confirmation as Obama's treasury secretary despite personal tax lapses that turned more than a third of the Senate against him.

"Tim's work and the work of the entire Treasury Department must begin at once. We cannot lose a day, because every day the economic picture is darkening, here and across the globe," Obama said at Geithner's swearing in ceremony shortly after the vote.

Obama said there had been a "devastating loss of trust and confidence" and that the financial system was in "serious jeopardy."

In his remarks, Geithner said the new administration would work first to stabilize the financial system and get the economy growing again and then would move to reform the system.

"We are at a point of maximum challenge for our economy and our country," Geithner said to a standing-room only audience in Treasury Department's ornate Cash Room.

In ordering new action on vehicle emissions Obama said California and more than a dozen other states had tried to come up with tougher emission and fuel use standards but that "Washington stood in their way." He ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to review that action.

The Bush administration had come under fire for refusing to allow states to set their own standards, for failing to act on climate change, and walking away from the Kyoto Protocol on grounds it favored large developing nations like China and India.

Obama also ordered the Transportation Department to enact short-term rules on how automakers can improve fuel efficiency of their new models based on a 2007 law.

A spokeswoman for John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, called the announcement poorly timed and ill-conceived.

"Our nation's automakers are struggling — drastically restructuring and shedding jobs just to stay afloat," said Antonia Ferrier, press secretary to the Ohio Republican. "And now they are being forced to spend billions of dollars to comply with California's emissions standards, instead of using that money to save American jobs."

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Chrysler and others, said industry executives were awaiting details but that they support "an approach that bridges federal and state concerns about fuel economy and CO2." She was referring to carbon dioxide emissions responsible in part for global warming.

Also Monday, Obama emphasized a desire to build stronger working relationships with Russia, Germany, France and Brazil in telephone conversations with his counterparts in those countries.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed "stopping the drift" in U.S.-Russia relations and building an agenda for their bilateral relationship, and agreed to meet to discuss shared challenges and opportunities, Gibbs said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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