WASHINGTON — Congress retreated Friday from the world's biggest environmental concern _ global warming _ in a fresh demonstration of what happens when nature and business collide, especially in an election year.
It was no contest.
A bill the Senate was debating would put a price on carbon emissions, targeting "greenhouse gases" that contribute to the warming that many scientists say could dramatically change the Earth.
Opponents wanted to talk about higher gasoline prices. And higher taxes.
That kind of talk spooks Washington.
Senate Democratic leaders couldn't overcome Republican opponents who managed to block the most serious effort in Congress to date to address the warming of the planet. The legislation called for cutting greenhouse gases by 71 percent from power plants, refineries and factories over the next 40 years.
The opponents first filibustered the bill, requiring supporters to get 60 votes, and at the same time attacked it on a gut issue making daily headlines: gasoline prices that have surged past $4 a gallon in many parts of the country.
"At the beginning of the summer driving season (you) offer a bill that would send gas prices up another 53 cents a gallon for goodness sake," Republican leader Mitch McConnell needled the Democratic majority.
"This is a massive tax increase on the American people," proclaimed Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is among Congress' dwindling skeptics when it comes to global warming, having once called it all a hoax.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of three chief sponsors of the bill, disputed both assertions, saying the bill would provide tens of billions of dollars a year in tax breaks for people facing high energy costs and for other measures to ease the transition from oil, coal and other fossil fuels, which are the cause of impending changing climate.
She argued that people actually may end up paying less to fuel their cars because a price on carbon emissions would accelerate the push for more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative fuels.
While McConnell, Inhofe and other senators from states heavily dependent on coal and other fossil energy made no secret of wanting to kill the bill, they pressed for a longer debate, believing they had an issue that would resonate with voters worried about higher energy prices.
"We want this debated," insisted McConnell.
Seeing events unfold in the Senate, GOP leaders in the House sensed a useful issue as well. Republican Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio called on House Democrats to bring up climate legislation now. "It would be a great time to have that debate," declared Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 Republican, citing gas prices.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn't think climate legislation would be taken up this year, and suggested it would fare better next year anyway with a new president.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and his GOP presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, both favor mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases. President Bush had promised to veto the Senate bill if it ever got to his desk.
Boxer dismissed the political weight of the gasoline price arguments waged by Republicans as a "phony" debate. "They've got it exactly backward," she told reporters.
But economics clearly drove senators _ both Republicans and some Democrats _ away from legislation that would price carbon dioxide and in the process dramatically change future energy use.
"This bill is built on quicksand," worried Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who said he foresees skyrocketing natural gas prices _ an issue particularly important to his state _ as utilities and industries shift away from coal to gas.
Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said that the concern about global warming is real but that he voted against the bill _ one of four Democrats to do so _ because it wouldn't move quickly enough to jump-start development of carbon capture from coal plants and other research aimed at reducing the economic cost.
The bill's sponsors said those were concerns that could be addressed.
Three years ago when the Senate voted on cutting greenhouse gases, it got 38 votes. Two years before that it got 43. Democrats said this time they had little illusion of getting the 60 need to break a GOP filibuster but had hoped for 50 or 51 votes, according to Boxer.
They got 48, including seven Republicans.
Still, Democrats saw Friday's vote as an opening for action on climate change next year when they believe a more accommodating president will be in the White House. A clear majority, 54 senators, expressed support for the bill counting letters of support received by absent senators, they emphasized.
"This lays the foundation for a new president to be able to move rapidly to get things done," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a leading advocate in the Senate for aggressive action on global warming. He predicted a bill will pass next year.
Obama and McCain both support a mandatory cap-and-trade approach to cutting greenhouse gases, as opposed to President Bush who has vehemently opposed such action and made known even before it was formally taken up that he was ready to veto it.
"It puts us on the path of hopefully getting this done next year" agreed Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a primary co-sponsor of the bill.
This year's effort was marked more by political posturing, bickering and partisan one-upmanship _ including a demand by Republicans at one point that Senate clerks spend 8 1/2 hours reading the entire 492-page bill _ than by any serious debate about climate.
But senators "really got a gut feeling" of what dealing with climate change will mean to their states, remarked Kerry, implying it was a needed rehearsal for the real show next year.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ H. Josef Hebert has covered energy and environmental policy for The Associated Press since 1990.