Cabinet Members Push Climate Bill on the Hill

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009; 3:15 PM

A quartet of Obama administration officials launched a new effort to sell landmark climate change legislation on Capitol Hill, telling a Senate committee today that the goal was not limited to simply curbing greenhouse gases but also to creating a boom in alternative energy jobs.

The administration's top energy and resource officials sought to provide a push for the legislation because of the steep climb it faces in the Senate. The officials hailed the emerging legislation as something that would provide a boost to the national economy at a time when it is shedding 500,000 jobs per month.

"This is a jobs bill, it's an energy bill," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former senator, called the battle against global warming "one of the signature issues of our time."

The legislation faces a tougher fight in the Senate than in the House, where even a narrow majority rules. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shepherded the legislation across the finish line, 219 to 212, after a furious lobbying effort on her part. In the Senate, where Obama will need 60 votes for passage, he faces up to 15 holdouts from his own party, predominantly Democrats from the Rust Belt, the South and farm states who fear the impact on energy costs in their regions.

The bill would create a "cap-and-trade" system placing the first national limit on greenhouse-gas emissions, gradually tightening those limits over the next four decades with a goal of reducing emissions by 83 percent before 2050. Major emitters of greenhouse gases -- including any business that burns fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal -- would have to reduce their emissions or buy allowances, which would be traded on markets like commodities.

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, has warned senators in recent meetings that the public does not respond favorably to terms such as "cap and trade" or even "global warming," according to aides who have attended his presentations. Instead, Mellman has instructed Democrats to focus on talking up the goal of reducing dependency on foreign oil, creating new jobs and other consumer-friendly phrases not associated with the scientific efforts aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

At one point in his opening statement Salazar said the legislation is "about saving our children" from the harmful effects of pollution created by coal-fired power plants and other emitters of greenhouse gases.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has tasked a handful of committee chairmen with completing their portions of the legislation by Sept. 18, at which point he hopes to have established a consensus to bring the entire package to the floor late in the fall.

The environment committee will officially unveil its portion later this month, with the hope of approving it before the Senate adjourns for a four-week summer recess on Aug. 7.

Republicans today largely rejected the plan. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee's ranking member, said the legislation would lead to "subsidizing the East and West Coasts at the expense of the heartland."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) led the GOP push to provide tens of billions of dollars in loan guarantees to build 100 nuclear power plants, which would double the current number in the United States. "As we did that we could begin to close dirty coal plants," said Alexander, leading Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was on the Hill along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to concur with his statistic that 70 percent of America's non-carbon-emitting power comes from nuclear plants.

Chu said his agency believes that "restarting the nuclear power industry" is part of the solution, but so far is only in the process of approving $18.5 billion in loan guarantees that would build four new plants. No new nuclear plant has been built in a generation, in the wake of the safety scares in the 1970s and the continuing controversy over where to store nuclear waste.

The main Republican argument against the climate change legislation is its cost. GOP senators suggested that many regions of the country will face higher utility bills. Either the utilities will pass on the costs of buying the permit allowances to continue exceeding their carbon caps, or they will pass on the costs of transferring to new alternative energy sources, they argued.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican considering a run for the presidential nomination in 2012, testified that a recent gathering of southern business leaders produced bipartisan opposition to the plan under consideration on Capitol Hill.

"There was little dissent about who would bear the cost . . . the consumer," Barbour said, suggesting that the trading system would become too complicated. "Many Americans worry it will end up being an Enron-style manipulation scheme."

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