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Climate Change Debate Off to Rocky Start for Senate Panel

WASHINGTON -- European leaders pressed Congress and the White House on Tuesday to unite on a plan to combat global warming, even as a Republican boycott forced a delay of votes in a key Senate committee, demonstrating the deep partisan rift.

An emotional plea for action by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an address before Congress was met with silence from most Republicans, while Democrats stood and applauded.

The Europeans as well as the U.S. were pressured in turn by African nations to do more, at a conference in Spain leading up to next month's international climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In Washington, shortly before Merkel spoke in the House chamber, GOP senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee shunned the planned startup of voting on amendments to a 959-page Democratic bill that would curb greenhouse gases from power plants and large industrial facilities. They protested that the bill's cost to the economy -- in the form of more expensive energy and the impact on jobs -- had not been fully examined.

The action underscored the difficulties Democratic leaders face in moving climate legislation this year -- or even in showing significant momentum ahead of the Copenhagen conference. At that meeting, nations will try to forge an agreement on cutting heat-trapping pollution beyond levels established in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan.

"We all know we have no time to lose," Merkel said, arguing that at Copenhagen "the world will look to us, to the Europeans and to the Americans" for leadership on setting binding reductions of greenhouse gases. It's a matter "in the interest of our children and grandchildren and in the interest of sustainable development all over the world," she said.

"I liked her speech, but I disagree with her completely on the climate comments," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a sharp critic of the Senate bill.

Merkel made the same plea on climate action earlier in a meeting with President Barack Obama on a day of far-flung developments concerning the contentious climate change issue:

--European Union leaders, also meeting with Obama at the White House, pressed anew for U.S. action. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters that he was worried about the progress being made ahead of the Copenhagen conference and called a climate agreement "a defining moment" for this generation of world leaders.

--The European officials pressed for a larger U.S. contribution to an international aid fund to help developing countries adapt to a warmer world.

--In Barcelona, Spain, African delegates to a preliminary climate conference briefly boycotted the discussions over their concern that industrial nations will not have to make significant enough reductions in greenhouse gases. They ended the boycott after assurances that the issue would be the subject of extended negotiations.

--Former Vice President Al Gore, a leading voice for action on global warming, said he expects Obama to visit the Copenhagen conference to reinforce the country's commitment.

After meeting with the Europeans, Obama said, "All of us agreed that it was imperative for us to redouble our efforts ... to assure that we create a framework for progress in dealing with what is a potential ecological disaster."

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt praised Obama for "real leadership on this issue."

The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress have essentially abandoned prospects of getting a climate bill to the president's desk before the two-week conference, which starts Dec. 7. But they hope a show of progress in the Senate -- along with the House having passed a bill and Obama's call for more fuel efficient cars -- will show the world the U.S. is taking climate change seriously.

But momentum shifted into reverse Tuesday in the Senate.

When Sen. Barbara Boxer of California convened her environment committee to start voting on the climate bill she and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had fashioned, she was faced with a Republican boycott. Only Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio showed up and he stayed only for 15 minutes to lay out the reasons for the Republicans' absence.

The partisan rift in the Environment and Public Works Committee laid bear the sharp divisions in the Senate over how to address global warming, although a number of centrist Democrats also have expressed problems with the bill. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who said he had reservations about the bill, was also a no-show, but Baucus' staff said that was because of a scheduling conflict.

The Democratic bill calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and industrial facilities 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by mid-century. Polluters would be given pollution permits that they could trade among themselves to ease the economic effect of the transition from fossil fuels.

Republicans demanded a closer analysis of the bill's cost and impact on jobs. The Republicans for months have characterized the Democrats' effort on climate as the road to a massive energy tax because it would force a shift away from cheaper fossil fuels such as coal and raise electricity and other energy prices.

"This is not a ruse to prevent this committee from marking up a climate bill," insisted Voinovich. "Rather this is a genuine attempt ... to have the best information available as we debate and amend the bill that will have consequences for every person in the country." Voinovich's state of Ohio is especially vulnerable because of its reliance on coal and its manufacturing base.

He said an analysis by the EPA cited by Boxer falls far short of what is needed. He said it was based on a House-passed bill that he said is significantly different from the bill before the Senate.

But Boxer the Senate bill was "90 percent the same" as the House version and the EPA analysis provided to the committee took into account the differences. That EPA analysis estimates modest cost to households from higher energy prices of $80 to $111 a year.