House Panel OKs Massive Climate Bill

WASHINGTON -- A House panel cleared a sweeping but contentious measure designed to curb greenhouse gasses, preserve the environment and alter how the country uses energy Thursday night.

"We're taking decisive and historic action," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the man charged with piloting the bill through the House.

The final vote was 33-25.

Four moderate Democrats voted against the bill: Reps. Mike Ross of Arkansas, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and John Barrow of Georgia.

One Republican crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats, Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Calif.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the monumental, 900-page measure after nearly four days of sessions that totaled nearly 37 hours. Some of the committee meetings had run until nearly midnight.

The House panel debated and voted on more than 300 proposed amendments.

"We now have a new source of woody biomass in all of the amendments," joked the top Republican on the panel, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas.

The environment and energy package could prove to be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation ever tackled by Congress. It holds the potential to touch every industry and consumer in the nation.

Lugging the bill out of committee is a major victory for House Democrats. Just two weeks ago, the controversial proposal appeared stalled over regional fighting between lawmakers trying to protect local energy sources from proposed regulatory curbs.

House Republicans have been nearly vitriolic in their opposition to the plan. They argue the legislation could cost an average American family as much as $3,000 in additional energy costs. But Democrats contend that the GOP's figure is bloated and doesn't account for rebates.

Those offsets could be generated by one of the most debated elements of the bill, called "cap and trade." The legislation aims to limit how much industries and energy utilities can pollute. It would also auction off pollution permits to affected companies. Revenue from that auction then could be rolled into rebates or credits to help tame costs.

But Thursday's committee action was just the first step in what could become a tenuous journey for this bill. The House Democratic leadership intends to bring the plan to the House floor in late June. But support among many moderate and conservative rank-and-file Democrats remains tepid.

"This not the end of our work," Waxman warned.

Furthermore, the legislation faces a very uncertain future in the Senate.

In the House committee, Democrats dodged a potentially major delaying tactic by Rep. Barton. There were whispers all week that Barton might stall the package by requiring a House clerk to read the bill aloud before the committee.

Committee aides estimated that reading the 900-page bill could consume as much as 15 hours. So the panel hired a professional speed-reader to step in, were Barton try to bog down the process with the reading.