WASHINGTON – A Senate committee dealt President Bush a setback Wednesday, rejecting his top environmental priority -- a bill that would give power plants, factories and refineries more time to reduce their air pollution.
Opponents wanted a plan that also helped reduce global warming.
The 9-9 vote on Bush's "Clear Skies" (search) plan -- a name that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., described as "akin to calling Frankenstein Tom Cruise" -- was expected and fell largely along party lines. It followed weeks of negotiation among deadlocked members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The committee vote doesn't preclude Republican leaders from bringing the bill to the full Senate for action. But it also arms opponents with several parliamentary tactics that they can use to defeat it on the Senate floor.
Committee members from both parties held out hope that a compromise could still be reached later this year, perhaps through an amendment to another of Bush's legislative priorities, a comprehensive energy bill.
The panel's chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., blamed the bill's defeat on environmentalists pushing to regulate carbon dioxide emissions (search).
"This bill has been killed by the environmental extremists who care more about continuing the litigation-friendly status quo and making a political statement on CO2 than they do about reducing air pollution," Inhofe said.
Siding with seven Democrats against the bill were Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and James Jeffords, I-Vt., who complained it would weaken the 1970 Clean Air Act (search), last amended in 1990. They also wanted limits put on carbon dioxide, the "greenhouse" gas scientists blame for global warming (search), which Bush opposes regulating.
"It's a shame that the U.S. Congress is the last bastion of denial on climate change," Chafee said.
Bush proposed amending the law to reduce nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury in the air by letting smokestack industries trade pollution rights among themselves, within overall caps set by the government.
Inhofe had shortened by two years the 2018 deadline Bush would have set for reducing the three pollutants by 70 percent, and added $650 million to subsidize utilities for installing carbon-control equipment.
That still couldn't sway coal-state votes like those of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, which has the largest coal reserves in the country. He suggested starting from scratch for another compromise later this year, since "sometimes things have to be torn apart before they can be put back together again."
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said the bill was needed because "it's a sin to burn natural gas. We might want to consider a sin tax on those utilities that burn natural gas."
Among the most impassioned about the defeat were Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Thomas Carper, D-Del., who led most of the committee's negotiations.
Voinovich said that that bill was about nothing less than keeping coal -- "our most abundant and cheapest energy source -- part of our energy future." But Carper said the bill's opponents had been stonewalled by the White House and EPA (search) when requesting more information about it. "That's got to end," he said, raising his voice.
To refute such charges, Inhofe had arranged six cardboard boxes piled high before him with what he said were 10,000 pages of paper -- a spectacle that Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., called "that mini-Superfund site in front of your desk."