- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2010

Environmentalists scored their first major Senate victory regarding climate change Thursday as Democrats gave a green light to the Environmental Protection Agency to impose strict new rules on greenhouse gas emissions.

Senators voted 53-47 to let the Obama administration proceed with its rules. But with all 41 Republicans and six Democrats voting to try to block the EPA, climate change remains a poisonous issue on Capitol Hill and the deeply divided tally likely heads off any chance the chamber could pass a broad climate policy this year.

Still, it’s a high point for environmentalists, whose fortunes have improved dramatically since 1997, when the Senate voted 95-0 to tell President Clinton not to bother submitting the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty for ratification.

“Today, the Senate chose to move America forward, toward that clean energy economy - not backward to the same failed policies that have left our nation increasingly dependent on foreign oil,” President Obama said, praising senators for giving his administration leeway to act.

The EPA is acting under the mandates of the Clean Air Act. The GOP argued that the law was never intended to cover carbon emissions and that only Congress can do that. They blasted the White House for leaving such momentous decisions, with far-reaching consequences for the economy, up to bureaucrats.

“The administration has shifted course and is now trying to get done through the back door what they haven’t been able to get done through the front door,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

But Democrats, who have long called for action from either Congress or the administration, said the EPA decision represented the best judgment of scientists and health specialists, and should be upheld.

“If ever there was a vote to find out whose side you’re on, this is it,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, who led Democrats in defending the administration and who said Republicans were siding with oil companies and polluters. She closed the debate by holding up a poster of a bird covered in oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and said that was the result of an addiction to fossil fuels.

Despite persistent questions about the science of climate change outside the Capitol, the Senate debate was largely silent on that matter.

Some Republicans did dispute the case that humans are causing the global climate to warm, but the GOP’s chief arguments centered on the EPA being ham-handed and its rules amounting to overkill.

“It is absurd to allow an agency as incompetent as the EPA to exercise vast new powers when they can’t manage less complex tasks,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. “If the EPA can’t train 250,000 contractors to manage lead paint rules, for instance, why should we expect them to regulate the energy-consuming processes used in every sector of the economy? This vote shows that the only entity less competent than the EPA is Congress.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the EPA’s rules could cost the economy trillions of dollars in productivity over the future decades, while reducing temperatures only a fifth of a degree centigrade.

Democrats, meanwhile, turned repeatedly to the oil spill in the Gulf, saying Republicans are trying to ensure BP and other oil companies can continue to conduct “business as usual” rather than transform to a cleaner energy economy.

“There are 37 million reasons why we cannot let this resolution pass today - 37 million barrels to date that have bled into the Gulf on industry’s watch,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

At times, the rhetoric was even more pointed.

Mrs. Boxer, California Democrat, said overturning the EPA’s decision was like trying to argue that lead paint and nicotine aren’t harmful, or trying to fight fundamental forces of nature.

“We have no right to do this. What’s next. What is next? Repeal the laws of gravity?” she said.

The House has passed a bill to impose a system of caps and allowances on greenhouse gas emissions, with companies allowed to trade permits for emissions.

Democratic Senate leaders would like to follow suit, but the chamber is too divided. Of the 47 senators who voted to try to block the EPA’s rules, almost all of them oppose an economywide “cap-and-trade” approach, as do several senators who sided with the Obama administration on Thursday but who would likely join in opposing such a plan.

After the vote, top Senate Democrats gathered to try to figure out how to proceed on a broad policy. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, acknowledged afterward that his caucus is divided but said he will keep working.

Whatever the pitfalls, Thursday’s vote is the best Senate showing so far for those who want curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.

Their previous high point was in 2005 when the Senate passed a nonbinding measure supporting greenhouse gas limits. But along the way there have been repeated failed efforts to pass cap-and-trade policies.

Environmentalists said lawmakers cannot rest on this vote, but should push ahead to try to pass a broad climate policy.

“Above all else, the comprehensive bill must include a cap on carbon emission - the pollution that most senators agreed today was a hazard that must be reduced,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Thursday’s floor action was the end of a convoluted process.

Late last year, the EPA announced it concluded that greenhouse gas emissions constituted air pollution under the Clean Air Act. That finding required the EPA to begin to write rules governing emissions.

Earlier this year, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, introduced a resolution of disapproval, or essentially a legislative veto, of the EPA’s determination.

The vote Thursday was on whether to officially consider Mrs. Murkowski’s resolution.

The effort to overturn the EPA was doomed from the start. House Democratic leaders have said they would not bring the measure to the floor for a vote, and Mr. Obama had said he would veto it if it did reach his desk.

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