SAN FRANCISCO — On a campaign-style swing through California, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) on Wednesday denounced President Bush's environmental record and pledged new legislative efforts to block the administration's proposals on global warming and energy production.
"While President Bush has provided strong and principled leadership in the war against terrorism, I think he's been AWOL in the war against environmental pollution," Lieberman told the California League of Conservation Voters in a lunchtime address here.
The speech was one of the most stinging Democratic assaults on any aspect of Bush's domestic record since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which pushed such disagreements to the sidelines.
Lieberman's talk was spiked with barbed language, and he repeatedly charged that Bush is pursuing a backward-looking agenda on a series of environmental issues.
Lieberman visited California as part of a four-state, four-day Western swing; he also will stop in Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
Officially, he is traveling to campaign for other Democratic House and Senate candidates and to raise funds for a new political action committee he has established. But Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate in 2000, acknowledged that he is "thinking about" a bid for the top spot on his party's presidential ticket in 2004.
Lieberman arrived in California just days after Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, John Edwards of North Carolina and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts--three other potential contenders for the Democratic presidential nod--addressed the party's state convention in Los Angeles.
Gore also has heightened his public profile of late, keeping alive prospects that he will again seek the White House. Lieberman has said he will not run if Gore does.
Jockeying to Attract Environmentalists
Environmentalists are an important constituency in some Democratic presidential primaries, among them California.
Kerry has already been courting them aggressively, promising to filibuster any effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling in the energy legislation the Senate is due to consider next week.
On Wednesday, Lieberman said he also would filibuster the administration's push to drill in the refuge, adding that he would do so "until the caribou come home . . . or Vice President [Dick] Cheney releases the energy task force records, whichever comes later."
Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, has threatened to sue to obtain the records of the task force, which Cheney presided over as the administration formulated its energy initiatives.
In his speech, Lieberman announced that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs, will convene hearings next month on the administration's environmental record.
"In its first year, the Bush administration has undercut environmental protections and undermined . . . [a] growing spirit of environmental innovation and collaboration," he charged.
'Breathing the Air Isn't Optional'
Lieberman focused most of his rhetorical fire on two aspects of the administration's environmental agenda: the proposal Bush recently announced to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, and the production-oriented energy plan that has cleared the House but faces substantial Democratic resistance in the Senate.
Lieberman derided as "feeble" Bush's call for voluntary reductions in carbon dioxide, which has been linked to global warming. "Breathing the air isn't optional, and therefore reducing the greenhouse gases in it shouldn't be either," he said.
A spokesman for Bush dismissed Lieberman's comments as "election year rhetoric."
"Economic growth and environmental protection can go hand in hand," said the spokesman, Scott McClellan. "That's why [Bush] has outlined an innovative approach to protect the public health, clean our skies and promote environmentally responsible growth."
McClellan contended that the "clear skies" proposal Bush unveiled last week would lead to the "most significant reduction in power plant emissions ever."
Of Lieberman's plan to launch a committee inquiry into the administration's environmental policy, McClellan said: "That's his prerogative."
Lieberman said he was preparing an alternative environmental plan with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), lately a frequent collaborator with Democrats. Their legislative proposal would require mandatory carbon dioxide reductions but would allow firms that exceed the targets to trade "credits" with firms that don't meet the goals.
The United States has used a similar system to reduce pollution associated with acid rain, and Lieberman argued that the approach would encourage firms to find innovative solutions by allowing them to profit from controlling their greenhouse gas emissions.
On energy, Lieberman echoed the common Democratic argument that Bush's plan was weighted too heavily toward new oil production and slighted both conservation and the development of renewable energy sources.
Lieberman's environmental credentials were reinforced Wednesday when the League of Conservation Voters ranked him as one of 15 senators--all Democrats--with a 100% score on votes of interest to the group last year.
Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this story.