- The Washington Times - Friday, November 6, 2009

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday passed a sweeping climate-change bill, with none of the panel’s seven Republicans participating in the 11-1 vote.

But the legislation, co-authored by committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and fellow Democrat Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, will not go directly to the Senate floor. It will instead become a starting point for extensive negotiations among lawmakers led by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The committee’s approval of a climate-change bill was also designed to show other nations that the U.S. government was serious about cutting carbon-dioxide emissions and prod other countries to do the same. Mrs. Boxer told reporters that the vote will help the cause of reaching a global warming agreement at the international summit in Copenhagen next month.

“This is a great signal for Copenhagen in that there’s the will to do what it takes to address this issue,” she said. But she would not predict that the full Senate would be ready to debate her bill by the Copenhagen conference, which begins Dec. 7.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was the sole Democrat to vote against the bill in committee Thursday. He said that he did not support the bill’s proposed 20 percent target cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 and that the bill did not adequately protect farmers.

For their part, Senate Republicans dismissed the vote as “theatrics.” They and some moderate Democrats said the bill will not form the basis for a final plan in the Senate, in part because Republicans had no role in the process and, in fact, were boycotting the committee deliberations.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said the Kerry-Boxer bill cuts emissions too quickly and would force electric utilities and heavy industry to switch from coal to natural gas, which would devastate his state’s economy.

“The balance on this is among people who, like myself, are people who come from coal states and manufacturing states, who can’t just meet the Copenhagen deadline,” Mr. Rockefeller said.

The bill is already being upstaged by a more conservative alternative being put together by Mr. Kerry; Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent; and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. Their compromise plan would significantly expand nuclear power and domestic oil drilling.

Mr. Graham sounded relieved that the legislation is no longer being debated inside Mrs. Boxer’s sharply divided committee.

“It makes it easier because we have the committee process, that part of it, behind us. Now we can all start sitting down and seeing where the votes are,” he said. “Clearly there are not 60 votes for that product.”

Mr. Baucus said later that the end of the partisan standoff in the Environment and Public Works Committee should allow for more wide-ranging negotiations on a new bipartisan climate bill.

“It frees up the Senate, frankly,” the Montana Democrat said.

He said he might hold hearings this year in the Senate Finance Committee, but may not write his own legislation until January.

The bill passed by committee Thursday is similar to one narrowly approved by the House in June. Both bills would establish a “cap-and-trade” system that would force polluters to buy annual permits from the government or other polluters for the right to emit greenhouse gas. The government would, however, give away most of the emissions permits, called allowances, in the bill’s early years.

The majority of those free allowances would go to electric and natural gas utilities to prevent sharp increases in energy prices to consumers and to industries that face import competition.

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.

Numerous other greenhouse-gas reduction goals would be funded by the bill, including the expansion of public transit, forest conservation, renewable energy development and rebates to consumers to cover higher motor fuel prices.

Republicans on the environment committee boycotted drafting sessions called by Mrs. Boxer this week and were absent from the room Thursday when the final vote was held.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, an avowed opponent of cap and trade who questions whether human activity is behind global warming, briefly appeared at the session to denounce the bill.

Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she was disappointed with the way the bill was approved, which she called a mistake.

“It’s certainly going to make it much more difficult for people like me, who believe we need to have some sort of climate change legislation, to take seriously what the committee produced,” she said.

But Mrs. 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 unilaterally. 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.

Mrs. Boxer acted Thursday based on a Senate rule allowing a bill to be passed in committee by a simple majority and on a promise from Mr. Reid that a full economic impact study will be produced on the bill that he will propose for debate on the Senate floor.

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