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Climate Change Advances in Senate Despite GOP Boycott

After waiting three days for Republicans to come to the mark-up, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee last Thursday voted out climate change legislation (S. 1733) without any amendments or debate -- a move that could greatly limit the chance for passage if it reaches the Senate floor (see NGI, Nov. 2).

Eleven Democrats voted to report the bill out of committee, but Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) dissented, citing several concerns with the measure. None of the Republican members of the EPW committee were present for the roll call vote. They boycotted the markup to protest what they believe was a cursory economic analysis of the bill by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The bill, co-sponsored by EPW Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), cleared the committee unamended. No Republican members were needed to vote the bill out of committee, but the bill could not be amended without some Republican attendance at markup.

While at least two minority members are generally required for the committee to have a quorum, Boxer was able to begin the mark-up using a provision of the rules that allows hearings to be held as long as long as a majority of committee members are present. The same provision allowed the bill to be voted out of committee if a majority of members are present and vote for the bill.

"In the history of the [committee we] have not been able to find a time when a bill has been marked up without minority participation," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the EPW panel.

"Despite the Republican boycott, we have had the will to move this bill forward," said Boxer following the vote. She said the Republicans' demand for a broader EPA economic analysis of the bill would have been "duplicative" and a "waste of taxpayers' dollars." Boxer contends that the EPA's preliminary analysis of the climate change bill was "unprecedented" in scope.

"Asking for [a more comprehensive] EPA analysis is not a stalling tactic," Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) said. "This is not a ruse to prevent this committee from marking up a climate bill. Rather, this is a genuine attempt to make sure that the members of this committee -- both the majority and the minority -- have the best information available as we debate and amend the bill that will have consequences for every person in our country," he noted.

"It may have been ugly but the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee moved a bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions and address global climate change in a partisan parliamentary maneuver. It may have been unavoidable, given the passions on both sides of the debate that are concentrated in [the] Senate EPW's members. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has surmounted a second hurdle [the first one being in the House] in getting legislation through the Senate ahead of upcoming climate change talks" in Copenhagen, said energy analyst Christine Tezak for Robert W. Baird.& Co.

In voting against the bill Baucus, who is also chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said he believes the bill's 20% midterm target for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is too high and instead supports a 17% target (see NGI, Oct. 5).

"Unfortunately these concerns were not able to be resolved [in committee] so I am unable to vote for this legislation," Baucus said. However, "I'm going to work to get climate change legislation that can get 60 votes [in the] Senate and signed into law."

The Senate EPW panel's bill will be one of several in the Senate targeting climate change. Sens. Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) last Wednesday said they will work together to craft legislation that could clear the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is likely to combine the EPW committee bill with other pieces of energy legislation and has committed to doing a "full blown, five-week analysis" of that final bill, Boxer said.

Last month Kerry and Graham outlined a framework for reaching bipartisan agreement on comprehensive climate change legislation in the Senate, which would include provisions on promoting nuclear generation and expanding oil and natural gas development (see NGI, Oct. 19).

The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman partnership and the newly formed natural gas caucus in both the House and Senate "provide opportunity for more proposals and cooperation," said Baird's Tezak. "Issues that we view as key to moving a bill in early 2010 that remain firmly in play" include conventional domestic drilling; nuclear power; natural gas; a 2020 emissions-reduction target more in line with the House (17% reduction) versus the 20% reduction proposed by the Senate; hard price collar; restrictions on EPA regulating GHG emissions through existing provisions in the Clear Air Act; and a better cost-benefit analysis, she said.

Referring to the Boxer bill, Graham last Thursday said "there are simply not the votes to pass this bill through the Senate." If the measure comes to the Senate floor, "I would vote 'no,'" he said.

The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman effort "could be a big thing. Still, it's a long way from getting 60 votes in the Senate," said a legislative expert with ties to the natural gas industry. Even with the aid of the three senators, he doesn't see climate change passing the Senate this year, and it may not even happen in 2010. "There's going to have to be a major game-changer to get this through the Senate."

Tezak said that "getting a bill through the Senate, through conference and to the president is not impossible in 2010, but it's still an uphill slog."

Inhofe appeared briefly at the markup last Thursday to read two letters, one from several Senate moderates -- Graham, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) -- urging Republicans on the EPW panel to continue to hold out for a broader EPA analysis of the climate change legislation. The second letter was from the ranking members on other committees with shared jurisdiction over the bill -- Senate Energy and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Finance, Foreign Relations and Commerce -- expressing support. Inhofe has accused Boxer of "standing in the way" of a broader EPA analysis of the climate change bill.

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