Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Senate rejected an attempt to limit greenhouse-gas emissions yesterday in the first vote Congress has ever taken on major climate-change legislation.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and proposed cutting U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to 2000 levels by the end of this decade.

But the Bush administration strongly opposed the bill, and senators defeated it on a 55-43 vote. A coalition of 10 Democrats from farm states and all but six Republicans joined in opposing the measure, arguing it would be economically devastating to make the required cuts.

“This bill will cripple our economy, cripple our communities and financially cripple many of our struggling families,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican. “Talk about sucking the wind out of the economic recovery — that baby would be flatter than a flounder.”

According to some scientists, human activity has pumped greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, into the atmosphere. Those gases theoretically trap heat inside the atmosphere, threatening catastrophes such as worldwide floods from the melting of the polar ice caps.

“The overwhelming body of scientific evidence indicates we are placing our globe in jeopardy,” Mr. McCain said.

Yesterday was the first time the Senate voted on a broad proposal that would actually cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases.

The furthest the Senate had gone previously was a 1997 vote, 95-0, to pass a resolution that the United States would not sign any climate treaty hurting the U.S. economy or that didn’t require developing nations to act as well — a slap at the Kyoto treaty that President Clinton negotiated but never formally submitted. President Bush has rejected the treaty outright.

Opponents had hoped to defeat yesterday’s bill by more than a 12-vote margin. An overwhelming repudiation might discourage Mr. McCain from repeating his winning strategy on campaign-finance legislation. That bill was signed into law last year, but only after Mr. McCain and fellow proponents suffered several years of close defeats.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman didn’t shy away from the comparison to the campaign-finance bill.

“The comparison is, it’s a reform issue — a fundamental and vital reform issue,” Mr. McCain said.

And, just like his repeated push for campaign finance, Mr. McCain yesterday said, “We will be back.”

He and Mr. Lieberman said a handful of senators voted against the measure but want to work with them to craft a bill they can support.

But Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the number of “no” votes was so large because the bill’s sponsors weakened it at the last minute in order to win votes. The initial version had called for reductions to 1990 levels by 2016.

“That confirms what I’ve argued all along: that this so-called ‘modest first step’ is cover for more drastic and more dangerous restrictions on energy use in the future,” Mr. Inhofe said.

“No doubt, proponents of energy-suppression measures will be back, but so will defenders of energy use and the jobs, economic benefits, and quality of life that it creates for this country,” he said.

The Oklahoma senator said that getting 55 votes — and Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat was expected to vote “no” as well — was actually a strong showing.

Mr. Inhofe also disputed the theory of global warming, pointing to a letter signed by 17,800 scientists saying there is “no convincing scientific evidence” that human activity is causing “catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

The bill’s backers countered with their own scientific testimonials, but they also said global warming should be obvious.

“I ask my colleagues not to listen so much to the opinions of labor unions, businesses, special interests or even scientists. Look at what is happening around the world. Use your eyes to see what’s happening,” Mr. McCain said.

He held up a poster showing a 1932 picture of an ice cave in Montana’s Glacier National Park and a photo 50 years later, showing the cave had disappeared.

“There will be no glaciers in Glacier National Park, so we might have to give it another name,” he said.

Opponents didn’t have a chance to calculate the costs of the new version, which only sets 2000 levels as the target. But the Bush administration, in a statement of policy, said the initial bill could raise gasoline prices by 40 cents a gallon by 2025, and increase electricity and natural gas prices by 50 percent. It also could cost 600,000 jobs by 2012 and leave a $100 billion hole in government revenues by 2025.

Mr. Inhofe said the winners would be other nations, which wouldn’t have to meet the same standards.

“People from those countries are sitting back with their fingers crossed, hoping this bill passes because this would be the biggest jobs bill for Mexico and India,” he said.

Mr. McCain countered that a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated the bill would cost the average household less than $20 per year.

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