Hoping to avert a partisan meltdown, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) yesterday offered an olive branch to Republicans who are planning to boycott today's markup of a sweeping global warming bill.
Boxer still plans to begin the markup at 9 a.m. with opening statements. But she agreed to suspend the markup at 2:30 p.m. for an open-door meeting with U.S. EPA officials to answer committee members' questions about the economic modeling of the legislation, she noted in a letter late yesterday.
EPW Republicans, who ignored yesterday deadline for filing amendments, also now have until 5 p.m. today to submit any suggested changes to the bill.
"We think this is going the extra mile for our friends on the other side, and we really hope they'll return to the table," Boxer told reporters. "They have every reason to do that."
Boxer added that she still retained the right to advance the 959-page bill without Republicans, though she would not say how long she would wait before ending the markup. "I never put a finishing date on any markup," Boxer said. "I never have."
She added, "I will tell you this, we're going to be very, very patient."
Committee Republicans huddled last night to discuss Boxer's offer on the question-and-answer session with EPA. Matthew Dempsey, the panel's GOP spokesman, said he expected Republicans to respond shortly before the start of today's markup.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) first made the information request to EPA in July on the economic implications on the climate bill, placing a "hold" on Robert Perciasepe's confirmation to be EPA deputy administrator until he got answers. Voinovich declined to say whether he would attend the question-and-answer session, which he had heard about only moments earlier when Boxer approached him on the Senate floor.
But Voinovich did say he had no plans to back down on the boycott until he gets a more complete assessment of the climate bill from EPA.
"I think we've made it pretty clear that we want a complete analysis of the bill," he said. "It's been made clear to her that's what we want. I think it's a sensible approach because of the fact this is probably the most important piece of legislation this committee has undertaken since the Clean Air Act itself, maybe even more important."
Voinovich's arguments got some significant political support yesterday when six Senate GOP committee leaders wrote Boxer a letter backing his information request. The group also said they were "deeply troubled" by Boxer's suggestion that she could move the climate bill without trying to work with the Republicans.
Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) later said that his signature should be seen as a warning signal to Democrats should they expect to get his help in winning over other GOP moderates.
"It would not be constructive as far as progress on the bill is concerned," Lugar said. "I suspect that there'd be no particular reason for many members to support it."
Voinovich said he would not rule out voting for a climate proposal once it reaches the floor, though he said he doubted that he will ever be faced with such a decision. "Never say never," he said. "But I think that maybe, if that's what they do, maybe down the road someone will say, 'You know something, this ain't working out the way we thought it would.'"
Boxer shrugged off questions about the political implications if she forced a final committee vote without gaining any GOP participation.
"I don't think it should hurt us down the road at all," she said. "It shouldn't. It just seems to me we have to be smart here. We have to be fiscally responsible. We've got all this work done. To start the process all over again in the hopes of maybe they want a different outcome doesn't make any sense."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he would not be so friendly with the Republicans if he was in charge.
"Their behavior challenges everything that we're about here," Lautenberg said. "If you don't like it, turn your back and walk out. It's almost like school children over there."
The EPW Committee effort is one key part of the overall attempt to move a climate and energy bill, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ultimately expected to fold the work of six committees together into one package.
Asked to comment on the EPW Committee standoff, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said, "Senator Reid hopes the committee will be able to work cooperatively to move comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation soon. It is long past time that the nation addressed this important issue."
Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) insisted that the EPW Committee infighting would be resolved without doing damage to the broader effort to win over Republicans.
"Nothing is falling apart," Kerry said. "We always have these kinds of moments, and we work through them. And I'm confident we'll find a way to work through this."
Kerry and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are scheduled to meet tomorrow with several top Obama administration officials on the climate bill, including White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
"We have to get back some of the things we've been requesting from them, which will help to be able to determine what's real in terms of options and negotiations and so forth," Kerry said. Asked what materials he is waiting for, Kerry replied, "Ah ha! You'll have to see."
Click here to read Boxer's letter to the Senate ranking members.