WASHINGTON — President Obama on Sunday called a House-passed energy bill "an extraordinary first step" toward halting global warming and reducing the use of fossil fuels, but he expressed reservations about a controversial provision that would slap tariffs on imports from countries that did not similarly crack down on greenhouse gas emissions.
He predicted that the measure would spark innovation and jobs, and that its costs to consumers would fall well short of critics' warnings.
"What seems contentious now is going to seem like common sense in hindsight," he told a small group of reporters in the Oval Office.
The House bill, narrowly approved Friday, sets a declining cap on greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for global warming.
Power plants, factories and other major emitters would need to obtain permits for their emissions or invest in "offsets," such as newly planted trees, that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The bill also includes strict energy efficiency standards and requirements for wind, solar and other renewable electricity use.
Obama sounded optimistic about its prospects in the Senate, where the House version will be the blueprint, he said. The proposal must navigate concerns from more than a dozen Democratic senators who represent oil, coal or manufacturing-heavy states.
Asked if he supported a provision, inserted late in the House debate, that seeks to penalize imports from nations that fail to cut their emissions in step with the United States, Obama said:
"At a time when the economy worldwide is still deep in recession and we've seen a significant drop in global trade, I think we have to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals."
He noted that the bill contained other provisions to defend U.S. manufacturers and their employees from lower-cost foreign competition -- including free emissions permits for energy-intensive industries vulnerable to foreign trade, such as steel and aluminum.
"I am very mindful of wanting to make sure there is a level playing field internationally," he said. "I think there may be other ways to do it than with a tariff approach."
The relaxed, 40-minute interview was a relative rarity for Obama, in length and in tone. The president reaffirmed his faith in the bill, which Republicans call a jobs killer and some environmentalists call ineffective.
And he reiterated his belief that the "clean-energy economy" would drive U.S. job growth for years.
Obama noted that his administration also had announced strict vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and included hundreds of billions of dollars in energy-related spending in the economic stimulus program.
Within the first six months of his presidency, Obama said, "we've seen more action on shifting ourselves away from our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels than at any other time in several decades."
House Republicans attacked the bill as an energy tax that could devastate U.S. families and cost Democrats politically.
The Senate's top Republican signaled on "Fox News Sunday" that his caucus would join the chorus.
"It's going to cost jobs," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "Obviously it will. It's going to increase the business of living in America. We all depend on electricity. . . . I don't think putting clamps on our economy when you know the Chinese and the Indians are not going to do it is a good idea."
Obama dismissed those criticisms. He recalled similar warnings that the Clean Air Act and a national effort to combat acid rain would send costs soaring and kill jobs -- warnings, he said, that turned out to be false.
He castigated opponents for "lying" about cost projections and "scaring the bejeezus" out of voters, and accused Republicans of being stuck in a 1990s-era debate on energy when the American people "have moved forward" with concerns about climate change and hope for renewable power.
"Everyone I talk to," Obama said, echoing his chief selling point for the energy bill, "when they think about how are we going to drive this economy forward, post-bubble, keeps on pointing to the opportunities for us to transition to a clean-energy economy as a driver of economic growth."
Obama acknowledged concerns from the other end of the political spectrum too. Environmental groups and foreign governments criticize the House measure for its concessions to industry, such as setting lower emissions-reduction targets and initially allocating most emissions permits for free.
"The final legislation, when it emerges, is probably not going to satisfy the Europeans or Greenpeace," he said.
But Obama said putting a realistic global warming framework in place would "change the political conversation and the incentive structure for businesses in this country."
"Finding the right balance between providing new incentives to businesses but not giving away the store is always an art; it's not a science," he said. "It's never precise. But on balance, what you have with this legislation is a bill that business can embrace but is tough enough that, by 2020, you will see a significant reduction in carbon emissions."