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Senate panel OKs sweeping climate bill

Democrats bypass a Republican boycott and approve a plan to limit greenhouse gases. The GOP wanted more cost analysis. Backers say the move gives the U.S. credibility ahead of Copenhagen talks.

November 06, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — In a move that stoked optimism for global climate negotiations but raised tempers on Capitol Hill, Democrats on a key Senate committee swept aside a Republican boycott Thursday to pass a far-reaching plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The 11-1 vote came after the Democrats, led by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), invoked a procedural rule to take a vote even though no Republicans were at the meeting. Republican senators have stayed away from the panel's hearings on the bill all week, saying a more detailed government analysis of the measure's costs was needed before any vote took place.

The decision by Democrats to proceed with the vote anyway rippled through Washington and the international community, which is gearing up for climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

Environmental groups praised the move, saying it gave the United States a much-needed dose of credibility going into the talks.

Oxfam America, an international development and relief organization, said the vote "keeps the United States in the game for Copenhagen."

The Union of Concerned Scientists said, "This is yet more evidence that the United States has the political will to reduce emissions and work with the rest of the world."

In a statement, Boxer called the vote "in full accordance" with Senate rules. She decried the GOP tactics and stressed the urgency of fighting global warming. "We are pleased that, despite the Republican boycott, we have been able to move the bill," she said.

But Republicans and some industry groups condemned the move.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said the bill the committee approved "could destroy millions of American jobs and drive up fuel prices, punishing everyone who drives, flies or takes a bus or train. The only bipartisanship evident today was opposition to this approach."

Still, it was unclear how the vote will affect the final climate bill, which would set a declining limit on heat-trapping gas emissions from major sources such as factories and power plants.

Proponents say the bill would spur "clean energy" job growth in sectors such as wind and solar power; critics say it would impose huge new costs on consumers. A version of the bill narrowly passed the House over the summer.

Several Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about the legislation, particularly its potential to raise costs for farmers and coal consumers. A handful of moderate Republicans, though, have suggested they could back the measure if it was properly crafted -- for example, if it included new incentives for offshore drilling and nuclear power.

Boxer's decision to approve the bill without Republicans present could also upset moderates from both parties.

Three senators -- Democrat John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- are drafting a version of the bill in consultation with the White House and Senate leaders, in hopes of attracting wide bipartisan support.

Boxer has long promised to pass a climate bill from her committee as a show of good faith for foreign governments concerned that the United States has not adopted wide-ranging emissions limits.

Still, it doesn't appear the move will be enough to spark a binding treaty in Copenhagen.

Increasingly in recent days, leaders from around the world have admitted what analysts and some negotiators have whispered for months: that the best-case scenario for Copenhagen is a political agreement to reduce emissions -- with details to be worked out in future negotiations -- and not mandatory reduction targets.

"It's quite apparent that the very high target we're looking for, the legally binding targets we're looking for in Copenhagen, will elude us," Rear Adm. Neil Morisetti, Britain's climate security envoy, said. "There's still an opportunity for us to get political targets."

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jtankersley@latimes.com

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