WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats sidestepped a Republican boycott Thursday, pushing a climate bill out of committee in an early step on a long and contentious road to passage.
Other committees still must weigh-in on the measure, but the partisan antics early on threatened to cast a pall over the bill – one of President Barack Obama's top priorities – as it makes its way to the Senate floor and as nations prepare to meet in Copenhagen, Denmark next month to hammer out a new international treaty to slow climate change.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, had delayed the crucial vote for days because of a Republican protest over whether the cost of the legislation had been fully examined. But the California Democrat moved quickly to pass the bill Thursday, which for the first time would set mandatory limits on heat-trapping gases, without any of the seven GOP senators on the panel present. The measure cleared the panel on a 11-1 vote.
Boxer said the Republican demand for more analysis was "duplicative and waste of taxpayer dollars."
"Advancing the bill is a necessary step on the road to garnering the 60 votes we need," said Boxer, who introduced the bill along with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. in late September. "We are pleased that despite the Republican boycott, we have had the will to move this bill forward."
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, implored the panel to not proceed with what he called a "nuclear option" minutes before the vote. He left shortly after making his statement.
"We have not been able to find a time when a bill has been marked up without minority participation," Inhofe said. Later, in a statement, Inhofe said the move would signal "the death knell" for the Kerry-Boxer bill.
Of the 11 Democrats present at the vote, only one – Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. – voted against the legislation, saying that concerns he had with the bill were not fully addressed. The "yes" vote of Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., was added after the vote.
Baucus specifically cited the bill's call for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. He said he would like to see that target lowered to 17 percent, with a trigger to raise it to 20 percent if other countries adopted similar measures.
"I am going work to get climate legislation that can get 60 votes through the U.S. Senate and signed into law," Baucus said.
To move the bill out of committee without Republicans present meant the Democrats could not amend the legislation, and many Democrats on the panel expressed disappointment that they did not have a chance to improve the bill.
"The failure of the Republicans to participate means we cannot offer amendments. This is a very good start, but as the chair has acknowledged it is a start and only a start," said Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. "It is regrettable that we could not move forward in a more constructive way."
Specter said that the vote would send a signal to other countries in advance of a climate change conference next month to hammer out a new international treaty.
"It is not the best signal, but it is a signal that the Senate is ready to move forward," he said.
Now the legislation will be merged with legislation written by at least five other Senate panels. And in the hopes of broadening support, Kerry announced Wednesday he was working with Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and the White House to secure votes.
The House narrowly passed its version of the bill in June.
On the Net:
Senate Environment and Public Works: http:epw.senate.gov
(This version CORRECTS RECASTS lede. ADDS Inhofe comment. corrects Boxer title to Sen. from Rep. Will be led. Moving on general news and financial services.)