WASHINGTON – Democrats turned back repeated efforts by Republican senators to soften the economic impact of a global warming bill before advancing it out of a Senate committee on Wednesday.
It was the first bill calling for mandatory U.S. limits on so-called greenhouse gases to be taken up in Congress since global warming emerged as an environmental issue more than two decades ago. The bill was approved 11-8 by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
GOP critics of the bill argued that limiting greenhouse gas emissions could become a hardship because of higher energy costs.
But Sen. John Warner of Virginia, a Republican co-sponsor who gave the bill legitimacy among many moderate GOP senators, called it "a chance to give America our opportunity ... to be counted on this very very important issue."
"We now move to the Senate floor," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who along with Warner had introduced the legislation.
The bill calls for the United States to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2050 from electric power plants, manufacturing and transportation.
It would create a "cap-and-trade" system whereby companies would have pollution allowances that they could sell if they went below the emission limits, or buy if they found they could not meet the requirements.
The trading is aimed at reducing the economic impact of putting limits on carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, the leading greenhouse gas.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee's chairwoman, called the legislation "historic."
But the bill's prospects are anything but certain. It is not expected to come up for action until next year, and many Republicans have vowed to seek significant changes.
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, has promised a filibuster, meaning it will take 60 votes to be approved. "I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it," Inhofe joked after the daylong session Wednesday and scores of GOP amendments — few of them approved.
"The rejection of key amendments has guaranteed an enormous floor fight," Inhofe said in a statement after the vote, maintaining that "many major issues were sidestepped" in committee.
The bill's supporters, particularly Boxer, took care to avoid any major changes in the carefully crafted bill. One amendment after another was rejected, most by an 11-8 vote — seven Democrats, two independents and Warner voting in unison.
Aside from Warner, Republicans argued that additional safeguards should be included to assure against economic hardship.
"This is going to cost a ton of money" in higher energy costs, said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. He argued that safety valves are needed "if this thing goes off the cliff."
Republicans offered a string of defeated amendments that would ease or lift the emissions reduction requirements if they severely impacted poor people, if technologies were unavailable or if other countries such as China and India did not approve similar measures.
Boxer rejected the notion that the emission limits — as Voinovich maintained — amounted to "a pervasive intrusion" on private business.
She listed major corporations — oil companies, automakers and electric utilities, among others — that have endorsed mandatory emission limits to deal with global warming, although not all are in favor of the Senate bill.
"They have come together and called for mandatory cuts of greenhouse gases," Boxer said.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., argued that the legislation was not aggressive enough, although its sponsors ramped up early emission reductions to 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, from an original 15 percent.
An amendment by Sanders calling for an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 instead of 70 percent was defeated 12-7.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., offered several measures to promote and expand the nuclear energy industry, arguing that reactors — unlike coal plants — produce no carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas.
His attempt was defeated 11-8, although Lieberman said the issue of nuclear power — as well as many other issues — would resurface when the bill is considered by the full Senate.
"We're not going to reach the goal of reducing greenhouse gases that this bill makes without nuclear power," Lieberman said.