Senior Senate Democrats plan to unveil new climate-change legislation Wednesday that will call for steeper cuts in carbon dioxide emissions than a bill that passed the House this summer, but the measure is likely to be held up until President Obama’s top priority, health care reform, is completed.
Like the House-passed plan, the Senate bill would cap and gradually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that can be sent into the atmosphere each year. Such gases, especially carbon dioxide, have been blamed for the gradual warming of the planet, a trend that experts fear will produce environmental ruin over time.
To regulate the emission reductions, the bill would also create a system, called cap-and-trade, which would require polluting entities, such as power plants and manufacturers, to obtain permits to emit greenhouse gases.
Businesses would be able to buy and sell these permits, called allowances. To ease the transition to the new system, some of the allowances would be given to big polluters for free, at least in the early years, although the Senate bill leaves for later how the permits would be allocated.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts have been working on the Senate climate proposal all year. Mrs. Boxer is expected to begin moving the legislation through her Environment and Public Works Committee later in October, but most observers doubt that the plan will face any votes on the Senate floor this year.
The plan, according to an 801-page draft of the bill that began circulating Tuesday on Capitol Hill, would be “greener” than the House-passed bill, mandating a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 20 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.
That compares with the 17 percent reduction called for in the bill that narrowly passed the House in June. It matches the House bill in calling for an 83 percent reduction in emission levels by 2050.
In addition, the Senate proposal would preserve the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act, which the House bill eliminated.
The draft legislation’s absence of any details on an allowance scheme is to be addressed later, aides say, with a revised bill expected in mid-October. Because of committee rules requiring a two-week notice, planned hearings are not expected before the week of Oct. 19. Aides to Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said members are planning for drafting sessions the week of Oct. 26.
Environmental groups have complained that the House version of the climate bill gave away too many allowances - roughly 85 percent of them in the early years of the plan - to favored industries, especially utilities.
White House advisers have been hoping that the Congress can show enough progress on the climate issue to strengthen the president’s bargaining position in Copenhagen, where U.N. treaty talks on the environment will take place in December.
Mr. Inhofe, an opponent of the cap-and-trade plan, said Tuesday that the bill will almost certainly pass Mrs. Boxer’s committee, which is dominated by Democrats who back the approach. But he said Democrats cannot yet muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster threat on the Senate floor without deals that address the concerns of individual senators.
He said Mrs. Boxer is withholding the free allowance plan to allow her to negotiate with utilities, refiners, energy-intensive industries and environmental groups as the bill proceeds.
“They’re trying to pick off the opposition one at a time,” Mr. Inhofe said.
Environmental groups were relieved to see the bill mirror most of the legislation passed by the House, praising in particular the strengthening of the initial carbon cap target.