Republicans who have historically dismissed calls for federal action on global warming are now seeing a political benefit to embracing some curbs on heat-trapping gases, prompting a flurry of Capitol Hill negotiations that could ultimately shift the nation's policies on climate change.
This transformation will be on full display as early as next week, when several senators are expected to jockey to try to attach rival climate change proposals to the Senate energy bill. Three factions -- John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.); Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.); and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- are offering competing plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which have been linked to global warming.
"We need to deal with global warming, not only because it's the right thing to do, it's the smart political and diplomatic thing to do," said Hagel, who has written three bills with Democrats aimed at promoting development of clean technology at home or abroad. "There is some political payoff in this."
Although most environmentalists see this as a sign of progress, some are worried the Senate may adopt a weak climate change proposal that would undermine more meaningful attempts to cut heat-trapping gases in the United States. The McCain-Lieberman proposal would establish a cap-and-trade system that, in the worst-case scenario, would in 2010 freeze carbon emissions at their then-levels. Bingaman's bill calls for carbon emitters to slow their emissions to mid-2012 levels by 2020, with the provision that industry could buy its way out of the cap if carbon credits become prohibitively expensive. Hagel's package includes voluntary limits and aims to cut carbon emissions by offering generous incentives for technological development and climate research.
"The only bill that guarantees reductions is the McCain-Lieberman Act," said Fred Krupp, president of the advocacy group Environmental Defense.
Some climate experts agree. James Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that while Hagel's and Bingaman's proposals have merit, their provisions would most likely allow a global temperature rise of more than two degrees Fahrenheit.
A confluence of events -- including a shift in the business community, mounting international and domestic political pressure, state climate initiatives and new scientific evidence of the emerging climate threat -- have all made it easier for lawmakers to take action. But if having a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions is becoming the new must-have on any ambitious Republican's resume, it is unclear whether this shift will translate into significant new limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
Even optimists concede that the proposals all face serious obstacles. The White House and House GOP leaders continue to oppose any mandatory greenhouse gas limits, and none of the senators in question would say whether they have enough votes to pass their proposals.
"I don't know if any of them will pass, but this is an issue that's entering prime time," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who supports McCain-Lieberman. "We're seeing a switch. When utilities talk to members of the Senate and say they're not all opposed to addressing the issue of climate change, it's time for the federal government to wake up and smell the coffee."
The business sector's growing willingness to countenance some carbon controls, spurred by financial self-interest and the fact that their European facilities now face carbon emissions restrictions under the newly implemented Kyoto Protocol, accounts for part of the political shift. Last month, for example, General Electric chief executive Jeffrey R. Immelt said his company is prepared for mandatory limits and intends to double its revenue from environmentally friendly technologies and products to $20 billion within five years.
"You get a gut feeling sometimes as a business leader that we should be preparing ourselves, in this case GE, for fuel constraints," Immelt said in an interview Friday.
Cinergy chief executive James E. Rogers, whose midwestern utility recently merged with Duke Energy and is the fifth-largest American consumer of coal, testified Wednesday before the House Science Committee that his company backs mandatory limits on carbon emissions. He recalled that his former law partner, Robert Strauss, "used to say, 'When you see a parade form on an issue in Washington, you have two choices: You can throw your body in front of it and let them walk over you, or you can jump in front of the parade and pretend it's yours.' "
Several moderate GOP governors have outlined their own plans to cut carbon emissions, among them California's Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But not all Republicans, and not all major utility executives, feel the same way. American Electric Power president and chief executive Michael Morris, whose company is the biggest U.S. consumer of coal, at 75 million tons a year, said in an interview that he believes it's "ill-advised to burden our American manufacturers when our competitors" in China and India do not face the constraints. He added that he thinks carbon controls are inevitable, but only in 20 or 30 years when industry has developed cleaner technologies.
The National Association of Manufacturers also has stepped up its lobbying against greenhouse emissions limitations: On Monday it plans to release a report saying carbon emissions limits and other measures could deprive the U.S. of 1.3 million jobs in 2020 compared with a pro-energy development strategy.
Some influential Republicans are equally adamant.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said public opinion may have shifted in favor of federal regulation, but that he holds his colleagues "to a higher standard" and that "doing what's right for America far outweighs counting where the votes are back home."
No one appears to have a solid vote count. The last time the Senate voted on the McCain-Lieberman proposal it garnered 43 votes; Lieberman said he thinks they have picked up support by adding a section that funnels federal money to clean coal technology as well as biomass and nuclear research and development. McCain said Republicans including Mike DeWine (Ohio), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.) are taking a look at his bill, but said they have yet to commit to it.
Bingaman is trying to lure Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) onto his proposal, which could give his bill a powerful boost. Bingaman and his backers have advertised his plan as a common-sense, cheaper alternative to McCain-Lieberman, but it has come under fire from several environmental groups.
Hagel said it is impossible to predict what the Senate will do once the energy bill reaches the floor. "I don't think there's any center of gravity up here," he said.