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The Rose Garden: White House Strategy on Climate, Health Bills Comes Into Focus

Health care reform and a climate-change-fighting energy bill have always topped President Barack Obama’s priority list. But which one should move first — and which one was really Obama’s first priority — has caused some confusion on Capitol Hill.

But according to knowledgeable sources, the White House actually has a sharply focused strategy for moving the bills. Any uncertainty, they say, is due to the differing approaches needed for the House and Senate.

The White House wants the House to finish health and energy bills this summer and the Senate to pass a health bill in July while waiting until the fall to complete energy legislation, according to the sources.

Obama is committed to finishing both bills before 2010, when politics could make it impossible to move either, the sources said.

Both the health and energy initiatives are fraught with complex and controversial details, but Obama wants them done, even amid the many other issues he is juggling. A major confrontation is shaping up over the costs of Obama’s health care plan and his support of a government insurance option, while opponents of Obama-backed energy plans are homing in on a carbon cap-and-trade program long sought by environmentalists.

Two other issues are also high on the priority list: financial regulatory reform and education initiatives, including increased reliance on a direct student lending program that eliminates institutions that serve as fee-charging middlemen.

Obama is strongly behind the determination of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to move the energy bill this summer along with the health legislation, and he has expressed his backing during private meetings with top House Democrats.

Pelosi is pressing to move as quickly as possible on an energy bill that reorients U.S. policy toward combating global warming. She is seeking committee action this month and a bill on the floor in July at the latest. According to one House Democratic leadership aide, she may even try to get it done on the floor before the July Fourth recess.

The decision on whether health or energy moves first appears to be less a concern to the White House than that both move.

“We will bring the bills to the floor when they are ready — whether it is health care or whether it is energy, when they are ready,” Pelosi said in remarks Thursday.

But Senate Democratic leaders have agreed with the White House on a plan to finish the health care bill on the floor during July and to move energy legislation in the fall.

The reasoning has much to do with the procedural differences between the Senate and the House. While a final vote on the health bill can take only a couple of days in the House, it can easily fester on the Senate floor for weeks. The White House must also devote resources to ensuring Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed by the Senate for the Supreme Court this summer, adding another reason to wait until fall on energy.

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