Senate climate bill faces challenges

By Juliet Eilperin
Monday, November 2, 2009

The climate-change bill that has been moving slowly through the Senate will face a stark political reality when it emerges for committee debate on Tuesday: With Democrats deeply divided on the issue, unless some Republican lawmakers risk the backlash for signing on to the legislation, there is almost no hope for passage.

Like the measure adopted by the House, the legislation favors a cap-and-trade system that would issue permits for greenhouse gas emissions, gradually lower the amount of emissions allowed, and let companies buy and sell permits to meet their needs -- all without adding to the federal deficit, according to projections. But key Republicans are making their opposition clear, even as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has enlisted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) as his most visible GOP ally in gathering support for the bill.

Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee who was initially seen as one of the few Republicans who might consider backing the majority, is helping lead the opposition.

"Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now?" he asked during a hearing last week. "Wouldn't it be smarter to take our time and do it right?"

He wrote Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson twice this summer to ask for a more detailed economic analysis of the House-passed climate legislation, and he has joined the other six Republicans on the committee in boycotting the climate bill's markup, scheduled for Tuesday.

The measure has deeply divided Democrats. With states in the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountain West dependent on fossil fuels for energy, many senators are worried about the legislation's impact on industry and consumers.

"I think at the end of the day, the people who turn the switch on at home will be disadvantaged," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told CNBC on Friday, explaining why he did not think the bill Kerry had sponsored along with Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) could pass.

So Democratic leaders, with the support of the Obama administration, are trying to sway at least half a dozen Republicans by offering amendments to speed along their top priority: building nuclear power plants.

Graham has suggested provisions on nuclear power and offshore oil drilling that could win his support for a cap-and-trade climate bill. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) has established a bipartisan working group of 17 Senate offices that is close to producing a detailed amendment aimed at hurrying the construction of U.S. nuclear reactors.

But it remains unclear whether that approach will hold currency in the current era of political polarization. One of the top Republicans whom Democrats hope to recruit in this effort -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), whom Graham and Kerry recently buttonholed on the Senate floor -- has voiced skepticism about the legislation.

"A tepid nuclear title isn't enough to get her to support a bad climate bill," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski.

Graham and Kerry are set to meet Wednesday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, as well as with Obama's top climate adviser, Carol M. Browner, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to discuss a possible compromise. They are also setting up meetings with colleagues on the issue.

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