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Democrats Push New Climate Change Legislation

November 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Democrats started pushing climate change legislation a month before the U.S. participates in climate talks in Copenhagen. Kwame Holman reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: Congressional Democrats began pushing their version of climate change legislation today. They did so with about a month to go before the U.S. participates in international climate talks in Copenhagen.

“NewsHour” congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The bill is designed to counteract global warming, but, so far, it’s added to the partisan heat in Congress. That was on display this morning, as Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California convened a markup in the Environment and Public Works committee.

Republican chairs were empty, except for a brief appearance by George Voinovich of Ohio. Voinovich, like most Republicans, opposes the bill, arguing, the effects on the economy have not been fully examined.

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH. R-Ohio: The bill is 1,000 pages. The fact of the matter is, is that those 1,000 pages, in those 1,000 pages, the entire economy is going to be restructured. The bill will have an unprecedented impact on our national security, economy, environment, and energy needs. And, for that reason, all of the members should have a full understanding of what this means for their states and constituents.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats seized on the Republicans’ absence.

SEN. BEN CARDIN. D-Md.: And I’m disappointed because I think that, if my Republican colleagues were here, offering their amendments, we would have a good debate and reach decisions. And, quite frankly, I think we might even end up with a better bill.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: To the author of this great bill…

KWAME HOLMAN: The object of the dispute is the legislation co-sponsored by Boxer and fellow Democrat John Kerry. It would mandate cuts of 20 percent in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by the year 2020, cap emissions allowances for industry, and create a market for companies to buy and sell pollution permits.

Yesterday, Boxer received a letter from the ranking Republicans on committees with jurisdiction on the issue. It said they were “deeply troubled by the failure to accommodate Republican requests for more information from the EPA about the proposal.”

While most committee Republicans broadly object to the bill, some Democrats on the panel have reservations as well. They include those from coal-producing states, such as Max Baucus from Montana, who are concerned about the bill’s potential economic impact.

But, today, Boxer argued, there was more than enough information on the bill’s effects to move forward.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: And there’s no reason, no reason at all, to do initial — additional analysis and spend more taxpayers’ dollars doing it, when the work has been done. The only reason, it seems to me, one would ask for that is to delay this process.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s standoff in the Environment Committee highlighted just some of the challenges still facing new climate legislation.

Jeff Holmstead runs the environmental strategies group at the lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C. The firm represents utilities and other energy companies.

JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD, Bracewell & Giuliani: I think that, from our clients, the biggest issue is, they would like to have some sort of cost certainty built into the bill. The idea is to have something called a price collar, so that you would know what the allowance prices will be going forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: Supporters of cutting emissions say the country can’t afford not to act. But even they acknowledge, the hurdles in getting Senate legislation passed are formidable, since it calls for deeper emission cuts than a bill already passed by the House.

Paul Bledsoe works for the National Commission on Energy Policy.

PAUL BLEDSOE, Director of Communications and Strategy, National Commission on Energy Policy: You cannot negotiate internationally what you can’t deliver domestically. And I think the Obama administration is going to have to stick very close to the kinds of emissions reductions that were in the House bill, because that’s probably the most we’re going to get through the U.S. Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, European officials today pressed Washington to act. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Congress there is no time to lose. And President Obama met with top officials of the European Union. He said they agreed, it’s imperative to make progress toward a framework international agreement.