POLITICS
11/16/2010 12:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senate Dems Divided On Climate-Change Bill

If Tuesday was any indication, the Senate's climate-change bill has a ways to go before it gets weak enough to garner the 60 votes it needs for passage.

The legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions took its standard shots from Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee during the first day of hearings, but unsurprisingly, they seem to have already made up their minds. Many left the committee room after delivering their opening remarks, and none remained through the end.

More threatening to the bill's prospects on the Senate floor were objections voiced by senators who are more integral to a vote for the final product -- committee Democrats from predominantly rural and fossil fuel-producing states.

Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the bill's principal author, has been working for months behind the scenes to win over coal-state Democrats and other moderates, and most of the committee's Democrats praised her efforts on Tuesday. That didn't stop them from demanding more carveouts for themselves, however.

Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania acknowledged that the bill will create jobs for his constituents, but said he wants a bill that the United Mine Workers of America can support. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who said she wants the bill to provide a more "stable business environment," called for more nuclear-energy funding and suggested that she would work to weaken the bill's impact on farmers in the agriculture committee.

Most damning was Max Baucus of Montana, the second highest-ranking Democrat on the committee and formerly its chairman, who provided a long list of "serious reservations" about the bill's effects on his state.

"The legislation before us is about our economy," Baucus said. "Montana, with our resource-based agriculture and tourism economies, cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change. But we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of climate change legislation. That's why I support passing common-sense legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our economy. The key word in that sentence is 'passing.'"

Baucus said the bill's 2020 emissions target, a 20 percent reduction from 2005 levels, was too strong. He didn't say, however, how weak the target should be, and wouldn't tell reporters outside the hearing room whether he would accept the 17 percent reduction mandated by the House climate bill that passed in July.

The Senate climate-change package does have allies. The five executive-branch agency heads sent by the White House -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff -- all said the bill's time has come, as did Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who didn't make it there.

Both President Obama and Vice President Biden spent time stumping for alternative energy development on the road Tuesday, Obama at a Sarasota, Fla. solar-research center and Biden at a Wilmington, Del. General Motors plant slated to reopen as a production center for alternative-energy cars. The legislation also enjoys 60 percent support among the public, according to a poll released Tuesday by CNN.

And several of the committee's 12 Democrats spoke out in favor of the bill with few or no caveats. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has spent the past month loudly championing the bill since he became its lead cosponsor, opened the committee's witness testimony with a strong defense.

"The science is screaming at us to take action," Kerry said. "America's leadership is certainly on the line here." Kerry pushed back against Ranking Republican James Inhofe (Okla.), who led the GOP charge that the bill would be too costly, by noting that Inhofe's analysis ignored its positive effects -- and the price of inaction.

Apparently unmoved, Inhofe repeated his charge that cap-and-trade would mark "the largest tax increase in history" Tuesday night on the Senate floor. Democrats outnumber Republicans 12 to 7 on the committee, so Inhofe's power is limited, but he could slow the committee down by telling the seven Republicans not to show up. Under committee rules, two of the Republicans have to be in the room for a quorum, and Inhofe has said since last week that he is considering withdrawing the GOP from the process if he feels they don't have enough time to decry the bill.

He'll have plenty of time Wednesday and Thursday. The committee is slated to hear four panels of witnesses during each of the two days, for a total of 54 witnesses including the handful from Tuesday.

But expect movement after that, Boxer said during Tuesday's hearing.

"Climate change, global warming isn't waiting for who's a Democrat or who's a Republican," she said. "Either we're going to deal with this problem, or we're not."

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