WASHINGTON -- Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul mocked concerns about global warming, rising sea levels and endangered polar bears Thursday, accusing the White House of being run by "extremists" and "hysterics" who don't care about jobs.
Paul, who was arguing for a resolution that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing court-ordered clean air rules, argued EPA was going too far in protecting health.
[UPDATE: 1:00 p.m.: The Senate voted down the resolution, 41 to 56, with six Republicans joining Democrats, and two Democrats, Nebraska's Ben Nelson and West Virginia's Joe Manchin, joining the minority.]
"To have clean air and jobs, we must have balance," Paul argued, contending that the EPA is wrong when it says 34,000 people will die prematurely every year if the cross-state air pollution rule does not go into effect, and that statistics show the air has already gotten much cleaner over the years.
And he slammed environmental advocates for ignoring such improvements.
"If you listen to the hysterics, you would think otherwise," Paul said. "You would think that the Statue of Liberty will shortly be under water and the polar bears are all drowning, and that we're dying from pollution. It's absolutely and utterly untrue."
"All of the statistics from the government -- and these are statistics from the EPA -- all of the statistics from the EPA show declining pollution," he said.
But most people don't know that, he asserted, because they've been deliberately misled.
"All of our schoolchildren have been brainwashed by these environmental hysterics who say, 'Oh, it's a lot worse now,' " he said, mentioning reporter John Stossel in an apparent reference to the highly criticized 2001 documentary "Tampering With Nature." "It's actually much better now."
And Paul contended that the country has come to this sad state because clean air advocates have taken over the top levels of government.
"I'm afraid what's happened is we've opened up the White House and this administration to environmental extremists -- the kind of people who say, 'Well, the polar bears are drowning,' " Paul said, contending that the bear fears are based only on one photo of a few bears on an ice flow.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate's environment committee, was so offended by Paul's remarks she criticized him directly in her own Senate floor remarks.
"Sen. Paul insulted the people of America," Boxer said, citing a poll that found 67 percent of the nation favor the rules limiting pollution from out-of-state coal-burning power plants.
"Are they extremists? No. They are mainstream," Boxer said. She also took issue with Paul for impugning the EPA's statistics, which he said were suspect because the agency paid the American Lung Association $5 million to do the scientific studies on air pollution.
"I think the senator owes an apology to the American Lung Association for making it sound like they're for air pollution rules because they are getting a payoff. It is an outrage, a complete outrage," she said, adding that the rules Paul wants to block stem from the Clean Air Act signed by President Richard Nixon.
"Does he think Richard Nixon was an extremist?" Boxer asked.
The issue is not completely partisan. A number of Republican senators from downwind states also oppose the Paul measure.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted that the cross-state pollution rule comes from the Bush administration and that power plant operators have had six years to prepare. He said the Tennessee Valley Authority was fully prepared and expected the costs to be minimal.
He also pointed out that soot pollution was getting worse in Kentucky -- and potentially drifting to Tennessee, where he said folks don't want it not because they are extremists, but because the pollution kills people and jobs.
"We haven't elected a Democrat to Congress since Abraham Lincoln was president, but we like to breathe clean air. Tourists do as well," Alexander said.
He suggested that the resolution was being pushed primarily to pander to anti-government sentiments on the right.
"The only reason for it is as a political message," Alexander said. "What kind of message is it? It's that we favor dirty air."
The measure requires only a 51 vote majority to pass, but with Republicans defecting, it appeared likely to fail. A final vote was expected to be delayed until next week.