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Energy and climate-change bill narrowly wins a test vote in House

The proposal would create an unprecedented framework for capping carbon emissions and institute new renewable energy standards. A final vote could come later today.

June 27, 2009|James Oliphant and Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — In one of the narrowest votes in its recent history, the House on Friday evening passed a sweeping energy and climate-change bill that supporters say could revolutionize the nation's industrial economy.

The 219-212 vote represented a major victory for President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), both of whom invested significant political capital in ensuring the success of the ambitious measure. Obama's administration and Democratic leaders in the House worked feverishly in the hours before the vote to cement enough support for passage.

"This is a transformative moment," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) shortly before the final tally. "This is a moment to build a clean energy future for our country. This is a moment to create jobs. This is a moment to take on, at long last, a defining challenge of our time: global warming."

There were defections on both sides: 44 Democrats voted against the bill and eight Republicans supported it.

Now the measure:h.r.02454: goes to the Senate, where it is expected to be extensively modified.

Supporters of the legislation say it would stimulate the economy by creating "green" jobs, encourage investment in alternative sources of power and help wean the nation off its dependence on foreign oil.

Opponents, however, argue that the bill would place a new tax on energy that would stunt economic growth, raise gas and electricity costs and do little to affect climate change.

During floor debate, Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia even asked for a moment of silence for all the jobs he said would be vanishing. He didn't get it.

By any marker, Friday made for a surprising achievement. Weeks ago, it appeared the legislation would fall victim to disagreements between environmentalists and industry, between lawmakers from rural and urban areas, and between moderate and progressive Democrats.

But this week, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, struck a deal to woo farm-state members. And Pelosi, in a gamble, decided to push the bill to the floor while a fragile consensus existed.

Obama too intervened, calling nervous, undecided lawmakers as the vote approached and deploying surrogates to twist arms.

The effort paid off. Late Friday, key Democrats who had appeared to be against the bill lined up in last-minute support, allowing the squeaker of a win.

One, Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, said he switched sides after listening to, as he said, "the Flat Earth Society" -- Republicans who maintained that global warming remained a theory, not a proven scientific fact.

Before the scheduled vote, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) took to the floor to protest a 300-page amendment that was added to the 1,200-page bill early Friday morning over GOP objections. Boehner leafed through the amendment page by page, speaking for an hour.

Waxman accused him of stalling in the hope that some House members would either switch their votes or leave the chamber.

The bill would set a declining cap on the greenhouse gas emissions scientists blame for global warming, cutting them by more than 80% from 2005 levels by 2050. It also would force major emitters, such as power plants and factories, to either obtain permits for the emissions they produce or to "offset" them by investing in carbon-scrubbing projects such as tree-planting.

Most of the permits would be given away at the start of the program, thanks to a compromise struck to win industry and coal-state Democrats' support. In later years, the government would auction the permits.

Other key features of the legislation include mandates for renewable electricity use, strict energy-efficiency requirements and billions of dollars to research technology to capture the carbon emissions from coal and store them underground.

Friday's 300-page amendment included new authority for the federal government to speed construction of interstate power lines in the West, a move to stop private homeowners associations from limiting their members' attempts to install rooftop solar panels and a variety of concessions to agriculture groups that were key to winning the support of farm-district Democrats.

"It's the most important environmental and energy legislation in our nation's history," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "A huge achievement."

But passage could prove trickier in the Senate, where many Democrats hail from coal, farm or factory states, and where the bill probably would need 60 votes to advance. The Senate product is likely to emerge from a combination of bills passed by the energy and the environment and public works committees, further complicating the negotiations.

After the House vote, Obama expressed confidence that the Senate would rise to the challenge, portraying the debate as one between supporters of the status quo and those who want to position the United States as a leader in the 21st century economy.

Less-aggressive climate bills have failed in the Senate in recent years, but Democratic leaders in the chamber have promised to move swiftly this year, debating a measure as early as September or October. And they cheered Friday's vote as an important step.

The House bill "gives us the momentum we need," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the environment committee chairwoman, "and signals that when we promised change for the better in America, we meant it."

--

jtankersley@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

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