WASHINGTON, DC, June 6, 2008 (ENS) – The U.S. Senate's much anticipated tangle with a landmark bill that would have required the nation to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming came to an unceremonious end Friday, as proponents failed to muster enough votes to formally consider the legislation.
Four days of deliberations on the climate bill were marked more by partisan bickering than substantive debate, but supporters of aggressive U.S. action to combat global warming contend the tide is turning in their favor.
"This is a landmark day," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and cosponsor of the bill. "It's another milestone in the fight against global warming."
Friday's 48-36 vote fell a dozen votes short of the number needed to end debate and begin consideration of amendments to the bill.
Seven Republicans joined 39 Democrats and two Independents in voting to move forward with the bill. Four Democrats sided with 32 Republicans in opposition.
Convinced most Republicans had little interest in actually trying to move the bill forward, Democratic leaders opted to pull the legislation from the floor.
Water levels in Georgia's Lake Lanier were low in May as a prolonged drought still grips the Southeast. The lake supplies hydroelectric power and drinking water to the city of Atlanta. (Photo by B. Bearden)
But the bill's sponsors claimed partial victory, noting that six senators who missed the vote - including both presumptive presidential nominees - said they would have supported moving forward with the legislation.
"This is moving in the direction that history needs it to move," said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent who cosponsored the bill with Boxer and Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican.
Lieberman and Boxer noted that the 54 senators who supported proceeding with the bill far exceeded the 38 who voted for a similar, but far less aggressive, climate bill in 2005.
"It's clear a majority of the Senate wants to act," Boxer told reporters.
The vote has "laid the foundation" for lawmakers and the next president to tackle the issue, Warner added.
Both the presumptive presidential nominees - Senators Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat and John McCain, an Arizona Republican - have indicated support for mandatory reductions in U.S. greenhouse gases.
Their positions stand in contrast to the policies of the Bush administration, which has opposed any mandatory limits and came out against the Boxer/Lieberman/Warner bill.
"We will have a Senate next year that I believe will be much more hospitable to this bill and they'll like this bill," Boxer said. "And we will have a president, either one, who will be hospitable to this subject and we believe will send down a bill to us and work with us."
A coalition of national environmental groups, including the Environment Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Union of Concerned Scientists echoed Boxer's view.
"This week's debate was just the first round in a three-round fight," the groups said in a statement. "The Senate debate has elevated the importance of this issue for the election and the next round will be in November. The final round will be next year, when we will have the support and momentum we need to pass legislation that will more effectively build a clean energy economy and prevent the worst consequences of global warming."
Rock lawn in El Cerrito, California replaces grass and eliminates watering. As of June 5, 2008, California is in an official state of drought. (Photo by Ken Duffy)
But the debate also showcased the fact that deep regional and partisan divides must be overcome if Congress is to take a leadership role in addressing climate change.
Republicans opposed to the bill called the climate plan unworkable and claimed it would cause undue harm to the U.S. economy.
"It is a climate tax," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from the coal-producing state of Kentucky. "This legislation will raise gas prices, electricity prices, diesel prices, natural gas prices, and fertilizer prices. It will also put America at a significant economic disadvantage compared to the rest of the world."
The legislation would have created a sweeping greenhouse gas emissions trading program, encompassing virtually every sector of the U.S. economy, with the aim of cutting U.S. emissions 19 percent by 2020 and 71 percent by 2050.
The trading system, similar to one already operating in the European Union, would allow companies to buy tradeable pollution allowances to ensure the overall reduction targets are met.
Money generated by selling emissions permits would have been reinvested by the government into new energy technologies and also used to help consumers and businesses reduce their energy costs. Some Republicans claimed more funds collected from permit sales should be given back to taxpayers and used to build new nuclear power plants.
McConnell argued that proponents of the bill had made a tactical error in bringing forth the legislation at a time when many Americans are worried about high gasoline prices.
"This whole exercise will have had no effect on either climate change or gas prices," said McConnell. "But it does send an unambiguous message: on the issue of high gas prices, our friends on the other side have no plan to lower the price at the pump."
Boxer rejected the characterization of the bill as harmful to the economy, saying it would create jobs and have little effect on gasoline prices.
Opponents of the bill refuse to "talk about climate change," she added. "They haven't challenged us on our basic premise that we have a problem. They switch the topic to what I think is a made-up topic."
Time is running out to tackle the problem, she added, noting that scientists estimate global emission reductions of some 80 percent by mid-century may be needed to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
"We must act now," Boxer said. "Waiting two years to act will double the annual rate at which we must cut emissions. In other words, you have a problem, and the longer you wait, the harder it is because the carbon goes into the atmosphere and stays there."
Advocates of the bill never expected the measure to pass, but it is unlikely they thought deliberations would descend into partisan squabbling over judicial nominees.
After agreeing to consider the bill Monday, Republican leaders stalled actual debate on the measure. On Wednesday, McConnell refused to waive reading of the bill, forcing Senate clerks to read aloud all 492 pages. That took nearly 10 hours and drew the ire of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The Nevada Democrat criticized McConnell before sharing with colleagues a Republican memo, given to him by a lobbyist, that outlined a plan by Republican leaders to delay consideration of the bill in a bid to score political points with Americans concerned about high energy costs.
"You couldn't make anything up more cynical," Reid said.
McConnell claimed the decision to make the clerks read the bill was payback for a failed promise by Reid to confirm three district court judges.
"It was about the importance of keeping one's word," McConnell said.
The majority leader questioned McConnell's priorities, arguing that the Kentucky Republican's "sense of urgency" about three judges was misguided.
Water in Nevada's Lake Mead used to cover the exposed white margins of the lake, which supplies drinking water to Las Vegas. (Photo by Dr. Ken Dewey courtesy High Plains Regional Climate Center)
"[He] does not share that same sense of urgency about the global warming that is changing the world we live in," Reid said. "The world will little note nor long remember those three judges, as good as they may be individually, but it will remember that we wasted an entire day and perhaps wasted our best efforts this session to take up the single most important issue for the survival of the planet."
The Republican leadership "stopped work to fight for the status quo," Boxer added. "They have stopped us in our tracks on this issue."
Both sides argued that they were keen for a long and substantive debate on the bill, but ultimately deliberations were derailed by a dispute over the process.
The Democratic leadership called for all amendments to be submitted prior to debate, something Republicans said was a tactic intended to limit their efforts to change the bill.
"It is probably the biggest, most complicated bill we've had in the 36 years since I've been a senator," added Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, noting that the bill calls for 39 new rules and regulations and the establishment of 58 federal programs. "It needs time … not closing off opportunities to amend."
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said all his fellow Republicans wanted was "just one thing, and that is to debate this bill, bring it out in the open, let the light shine on it.
But Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said Republicans had sanctioned a "tremendous waste of time and effort" and were not acting in good faith.
"The notion that we have blocked all amendments is not true," Durbin said. "We have said to the Republicans repeatedly: Provide us with the amendments. Show us what you are going to offer. Here is what we will offer … yet the Republican side has refused."
S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said his organization of state and local agencies believes that ultimately Congress will "adopt comprehensive climate legislation that yields greenhouse gas emission reductions consistent with the consensus recommendations of the scientific community."
"In the meantime," Becker said, in view of the U.S. EPA's refusal to grant California a waiver for its Clean Car Standard, "the need to preserve the rights of states and localities to take action above and beyond that of the federal government has never been clearer."
"As we face the tremendous and ever-growing challenges posed by global warming," said Becker, "states and localities in every region of the country will continue to lead and act as laboratories of innovation to address this urgent problem."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.
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