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THE NATION

Green laws no slam-dunk in new Congress

Environmentalists project success now that Democrats control both chambers. But a push for stronger rules could scramble partisan loyalty.

December 18, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Steps to curb global warming. Tougher fuel economy standards for automobiles. Repeal of massive tax breaks for the oil industry.

Environmentalists are busy these days crafting their holiday wish-list, giddy about the prospects for success in the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

But industry groups are gearing up to fight, and their forces may include more than the usual Republican allies.

"We're confident that there are plenty of Democrats who know and understand us," said Charles Drevna of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Assn.

Drevna's confidence is probably well-placed. The politics surrounding environmental issues have proved hard to predict, largely because the potential economic impact of stronger regulation tends to scramble partisan loyalties. Democrats from auto-making states, for example, have fought efforts to mandate stricter miles-per-gallon rules for vehicles.

These crosscurrents could cause the push for an aggressive environmental agenda to become an object lesson on the limits of what can actually be achieved in the Congress that will convene in January.

New chief for key panel

Key to the enthusiasm among environmentalists is the impending change at the helm of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has called global warming "the greatest challenge of our generation," will replace Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has dismissed man-made climate change as a "hoax."

Perhaps no other transfer of committee chairs is as dramatic. Boxer drives a hybrid Toyota Prius. Inhofe drives a Jeep.

Boxer says that California's new global warming law -- whose goal is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 25% by 2020 -- should be a model for the nation. Inhofe derides it as a "job killer."

Boxer received a perfect score from the League of Conservation Voters for her Senate votes this year. Inhofe received a 0.

Environmentalists say that after years of fighting GOP attempts to roll back environmental laws, they now can go on the offensive.

"It's as if the winds have shifted and proponents of environmental controls finally have the winds at our backs," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.

The precarious nature of this shift was driven home last week when Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) underwent brain surgery.

Should Johnson die or resign and be replaced by a Republican, the GOP would regain control of the closely divided Senate, denying Boxer and other Democrats committee chairmanships. With Johnson's condition improving, however, plans for the Democratic takeover are proceeding.

Difficult goals

Boxer has set an ambitious agenda that includes advancing legislation on global warming and reinstituting a tax on the oil and chemical industries to pay for clean up of contaminated sites. She also has pledged tough oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But she faces a daunting task in trying to move her bills through Congress -- and past President Bush's veto pen.

For anything controversial, such as mandatory caps on emissions linked to global warming, she probably would face Senate filibusters -- perhaps joined by some of her fellow Democrats.

Nor will assent from the House be an easy matter.

Asked to assess Boxer's prospects for enacting a law to cap emissions, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said: "She hasn't called John Dingell."

Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has been a champion of automakers, who have opposed California's effort to reduce tailpipe emissions linked to global warming. He also has helped thwart congressional efforts to toughen miles-per-gallon rules for vehicles.

Although noncommittal about specific legislation, Dingell made clear that his approach differs from Boxer's.

"Democrats want a sound environment," he said. "But remember, this is a big country, and different parts of the country are affected differently" by environmental laws.

He did say, however, "I cannot support destituting the United States to address the problem of global warming. If we're going to pitch in ... then everybody is going to have to do so."

Boxer plans to hold hearings on climate change, including calling California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Washington to testify about the state's cutting-edge laws on the issue.

Boxer pledges to take global warming legislation "as far as we possibly can take it" with the makeup of the new Congress.

And even if her efforts fall short, environmentalists say she and like-minded lawmakers could play a crucial role in laying the groundwork for future federal action.

House maneuvering

As industry lobbyists prepare to battle Boxer, they also are looking for help from Democrats to block an effort planned by House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to repeal tax breaks for oil and natural gas industries.

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