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Party Shift May Make Warming a Hill Priority

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Dramatic changes in congressional oversight of environmental issues may pump new life into efforts to fight global warming, activist groups and lawmakers said yesterday.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) announced his intention to become the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, now headed by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has said that global warming is a hoax. Warner has called for action against climate change, and his ascension to a leadership post would accelerate significant changes already underway.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) -- a liberal who has called global warming a dire threat -- is in line to chair the committee in the next Congress as a result of last week's elections, which will give Democrats the Senate majority. Environmentalists have been hailing her impending replacement of Inhofe as chairman. Warner's takeover of the ranking minority member's slot, they said yesterday, would raise even greater hopes for advancing their agenda.

"That could drastically change the way that committee operates," said Karen Steuer, government affairs chief at the National Environmental Trust. "We might see, on a number of issues, bipartisan legislation coming out of that committee, and that would be a huge step forward. . . . In one fell swoop, it's gone from the Dark Ages to the Space Age."

First, however, GOP senators must decide whether Warner's seniority on the committee grants him the right to be the ranking Republican. Inhofe issued a statement saying that he thinks Warner "has misunderstood the rules" and that "I intend to retain my leadership position in the 110th Congress, returning as the Ranking Member" of the environment committee.

Warner responded in a statement: "I carefully reviewed the rules in consultation with the Secretary of the Majority, who assures me that my seniority on the Committee forms a clear basis, under longstanding precedent" for claiming the top Republican spot. Warner will surrender the Armed Services Committee chairmanship and assert his party leadership claim on the environmental panel.

Senate aides said seniority traditionally determines who obtains ranking status. They noted that in 1987, the Foreign Relations Committee's Republicans wanted Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) to be the panel's ranking Republican, but the full party caucus overruled them and gave the slot to the more senior Jesse Helms (N.C.). The 110th Congress's GOP senators will vote on committee positions by Jan. 3.

Whoever is the top Republican on the environment committee, Boxer said in an interview yesterday that she plans aggressive hearings on environmental concerns, especially climate change. "There is a pent-up desire on the part of many people in the country to get back to making progress on the environment," she said, adding that she plans "to roll out a pretty in-depth set of hearings on global warming."

If the government does not do more to limit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, Boxer said, "we will be facing economic decline and environmental ruin." Having Warner replace Inhofe as the committee's top Republican, she said, would send "a very different signal."

Warner said recently, "I am committed to market-based measures and investments in new commercial technologies to slow the rate of growth in greenhouse gas emissions as we continue to gather further sound scientific evidence to guide national and international decision-making."

Many scientists and environmental groups have accused the Bush administration of doing far too little to address climate change. The United States is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but it ranks 53rd -- ahead of only China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia -- in combating the problem, according to a report released this week by environmental groups.

The House also will see significant changes in the committees that handle environmental legislation and oversight. On the Energy and Commerce Committee, ranking minority member John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) will become chairman, replacing Joe Barton (R-Tex.). The Government Reform Committee, which conducts oversight of entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, will be headed by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), known for aggressive investigations.

Dingell, because of his ties to the Michigan-based automobile industry, has shown caution in pressing for new standards on emissions and fuel efficiency. Boxer acknowledged that even with a Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush has veto power, and legislative achievements will be limited.

"Maybe I want to take the ball 50 yards, but I can take it only 30," she said. That still will mean progress, she said, adding: "It isn't going to help any business, it isn't going to help anybody if we do nothing about global warming."

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