Ignoring GOP, Senate enviro panel passes climate bill

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The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Thursday passed a sweeping climate change bill co-authored by Chairman Barbara Boxer and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., with none of the panel’s seven Republicans participating in the 11-1 vote.

The legislation will not go directly to the Senate floor. It will instead become a starting point for extensive negotiations among senators led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The committee approval’s of a climate change bill was also designed to show other nations that the U.S. was serious about cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Boxer told reporters that her panel’s action will help the cause of drafting a global warming treaty in Copenhagen next month.

Republicans dismissed the action as “theatrics,” more symbol than substance leading up to the international meeting.

In the meantime in the Senate, the Boxer-Kerry bill is already being upstaged by a more moderate alternative being put together by Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Their plan would significantly expand nuclear power and domestic oil drilling.

Voting the Boxer-Kerry bill out of committee was widely viewed as a way to keep the process moving forward, rather than as a signal of what the final legislation in the Senate would look like.

Republicans on the environment committee, who opposed the bill, boycotted drafting sessions called by Boxer this week and were absent from the room Thursday.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was the sole Democrat to vote no . He said he voted against the bill because it mandated a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and didn’t adequately protect farmers.

The bill seeks to establish a cap-and-trade system to limit how much carbon dioxide can be emitted. Polluters would then be forced to buy and sell the right to emit the greenhouse gas. The bill would also create new incentives for clean-coal technology and for the expansion of nuclear power. The Environmental Protection Agency would also be allowed to regulate carbon dioxide emissions using the Clean Air Act, if the legislation became law.

Baucus said he planned to propose an amendment on the Senate floor to reduce the emission-reduction target to 17 percent by 2020, with a “trigger” to boost the cut to 20 percent if other nations agreed to cut their emissions. The House bill passed in June set a 17 percent target by 2020, while both bills would force emissions to fall by 80 percent by 2050.

Still, Baucus said, he would work to see a “meaningful, balanced” climate bill passed by the Senate.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, briefly appeared at the committee meeting to denounce the bill. He said Republicans on the committee were still opposed to a vote until a comprehensive economic impact analysis of the legislation was conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Boxer and other committee Democrats said it was clear that Republicans were not going to participate in drafting sessions and that Democrats were forced to pass the bill. Democrats on the committee were unable to approve any amendments because a committee rule requires two members of the minority party to participate in drafting sessions. Boxer said she acted Thursday based on a Senate rule allowing a bill to be passed in committee by a simple majority.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) told reporters he did not think that the partisan passage of the bill would hurt the chances of passing the legislation on the Senate floor. He stressed that the legislation will be revised by Reid before it is debated by the full Senate.

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