WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats on Wednesday defeated a Republican effort to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from controlling the gases blamed for global warming.
Republicans still planned to pass an identical bill in the House on Thursday, even though it has little chance of becoming law.
In a 50-50 vote, the Senate rejected a measure by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma that would have repealed a 2009 finding by federal scientists that climate change caused by greenhouse gases endangers human health and would have prevented the agency from using existing law to regulate heat-trapping pollution. The amendment – to a small-business bill – needed 60 votes to pass.
Only four Democrats – Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska – supported the McConnell bid. One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted against it.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House is expected to pass an identical bill Thursday, but the White House has threatened a veto any bill that reaches the president's desk. The House voted earlier this year to prohibit the EPA from spending any money to regulate greenhouse gases as part of a spending bill for the next six months. It is part of negotiations among the White House, Senate Democrats and House Republicans to keep the government running.
Senate Democrats proposed Wednesday less aggressive prohibitions on the EPA that would have delayed regulations for two years, exempted certain industries, or both. But the most votes any of the three alternatives received was 12. Republicans nearly unanimously voted against them, and so did most Democrats.
In a statement Wednesday night, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was "encouraged" by the Senate's actions to defend the EPA "by rejecting efforts to roll back EPA's common-sense steps to safeguard Americans from harmful pollution."
But critics of the administration's action on global warming looked at the outcome in a different light, saying that a majority of senators in some way voted to restrict the EPA's regulation of heat-trapping gases.
"When all is said and done, a bipartisan majority in the Senate issued a sobering message to EPA ... suggesting it's time to reverse course and put Congress back in charge of America's energy policy," Inhofe said in a statement.
Democrats focused their arguments on what they said was an unprecedented reversal by Congress of a scientific finding.
"The fact is, why should we play doctor? I'm too humble to repeal science," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., taking the position of many Democrats against the McConnell amendment's overturning of a finding by the EPA that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. EPA scientists had made the same conclusion under President George W. Bush, but the White House never acted on the recommendation.
Republicans, in hours of debate Wednesday, painted EPA's regulations as an overreach of government that will harm the economy and lead to job losses and must be stopped. They stressed that their efforts to hamstring the agency in the case of global warming would not affect other parts of the Clean Air Act that protect people from toxic and lung-damaging pollutants.
"This legislation will remove the biggest regulatory threat to the American economy," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee and chief sponsor of the House bill. "This is a threat imposed not by Congress, but entirely by the Obama Environmental Protection Agency."
Senate Republicans argued the lesser measures protected a handful of Democrats who could be vulnerable in 2012 elections, but would do little to protect American jobs and electricity costs in the long run. They also pointed out, as the EPA has acknowledged, that controlling greenhouse gases in the United States would do little to reduce the temperature of the planet, since other countries are not addressing the problem.
"Democrats themselves recognize the dangers of these EPA regulations," McConnell said Wednesday. "Yet instead of voting for the one amendment that solves the problem, they're hiding behind sham amendments designed to give them political cover."