Former Vice President Al Gore hailed yesterday's Senate committee action on global warming legislation as "an important victory for climate" and shrugged off concerns that the panel's controversial process might alienate moderate lawmakers whose votes are needed to pass the measure into law.
In a wide-ranging interview, Gore said the 11-1 vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee marked "one more important step toward the Senate enacting comprehensive legislation."
Gore dismissed the Republicans' three-day boycott of the committee markup, which centered around an unsatisfied information request to U.S. EPA, even as it drew support from moderate GOP senators whom President Obama is likely to need as the bill moves forward in the process.
"I would urge those tempted to be concerned about the lack of Republican support to consider the challenge it posed to the majority on the committee," said Gore, who was in Washington to promote his new global warming book, "Our Choice."
"It was, in the main, a delaying tactic, in my view, and the simple fact is this bill will turn out to be a very important component of a larger bill that will itself be subjected to exactly the analysis that the minority is seeking," Gore added.
Several moderate Republicans, including Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, rallied to the side of the EPW Committee's minority this week and urged Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) not to hold a vote on the bill without first getting more EPA data.
"I think it has left clearly a very bitter taste in many members' mouths about how we're part of a process on a very important issue," Murkowski, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday. "This may stall things out for a period of time."
But Gore defended Boxer, who he said was in a difficult position that ultimately forced her to use a new interpretation of the Senate rules to move the bill. EPW ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an outspoken skeptic on the science of global warming, accused Boxer of violating the Senate rules and precedent by moving the bill without any GOP participation.
"I believe she not only did the right thing, but would have faced justifiable criticism if she gave Senator Inhofe veto power over the committee's ability to play its role as one of the six committees in this process," Gore said.
Boxer's bill now will be merged with legislation approved earlier this year by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as ideas from the Agriculture, Commerce, Finance and Foreign Relations panels.
Powerful senators from coal states also want to make major changes to the bill, including Montana Democrat Max Baucus and West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who both said yesterday they expect to weaken the bill's emissions target for 2020, now set at 20 percent. "It'll be changed," Baucus told reporters yesterday. "Certainly, the mid-level targets will be changed."
"I want to see something work out, but its got to work out so that coal state and manufacturing states can do it," Rockefeller added. "You can't do this without coal."
Gore said he wasn't concerned about such a move, even if it watered down the bill below the thresholds that many scientists say are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change.
'Important thing is to get an agreement'
Asked if he would veto a climate bill with a 17 percent emissions limit if he were the president, Gore replied, "No. Much will depend on the details of the final product, but the number itself, though far less ambitious than I would like to see, must be assessed in the context of this difficult political environment in which opponents of the bill have a lot of power and influence over the Congress."
He continued, "And the important thing is to get an agreement that starts this historic change process, and once it is under way, I believe it's inevitable that the reductions will turn out to be much easier than the opponents have claimed. The best-managed businesses will race ahead in anticipation of further reductions in coming years, and we will see a very different political environment emerge as they gain confidence in their ability to make deeper reductions."
Gore said he would also be on the lookout for other potential sleeper issues that could merit a presidential veto, though he declined to go into any specifics.
"Rather than singling out one provision, I will depend once again on the oft-quoted remark from [former Supreme Court Justice] Hugo Black, 'I'll know it when I see it,'" he said. "But there's more than one devil lurking in the details of this emerging legislation, and some of them could be so devilish as to warrant a veto."
Some key Senate moderates, including North Dakota Democrats Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, have been arguing for months that Congress should focus this year on passing a stand-alone energy bill that focuses on increases in domestic oil and gas production, while saving the more politically challenging climate measure for later. Here, Gore drew a clear line of opposition, citing the role that the United States is expected to play in the international negotiations to craft a new treaty that succeeds the Kyoto Protocol.
"In these circumstances, with the entire international community focused on what the United States does, it would be worse than having no bill at all to have legislation only included the energy components and did not include reductions in global warming emissions," Gore said.
Risks for House Democrats?
Turning to politics, Gore maintained that a floor vote earlier this spring in favor of the House-passed climate bill would be a positive as lawmakers seek re-election in 2010. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers in conservative districts supported the House legislation sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) but now face heated campaign attacks from the GOP.
Gore said that House members "who cast what felt like very difficult votes for them on Waxman-Markey have gotten a boost in the polls from their support of legislation. ... That's really a significant political fact on the ground."
Yet Gore also acknowledged that House Democrats may be left in a pinch if the climate bill doesn't get all the way across the finish line to Obama's desk. In 1993, Gore led a Clinton administration initiative on energy -- widely known as the "Btu tax" -- that some say helped contribute to the landslide 1994 election where Republicans took over the House after more than a half century of Democratic rule.
"Yes, I think the Btu PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is a factor in this debate," Gore said.
Asked if House Democrats are vulnerable now, Gore replied, "I don't know the answer to that question, but surely some of them believe that, and I do think that's a factor in the handling of the Senate bill. But I'm not very good at political punditry. I do think that the substance of this is ultimately going to drive the outcome."
Gore conceded that a climate bill signed into law before next month's U.N. negotiations in Copenhagen is unlikely.
"Well, I would prefer to have the law, but they face a daunting political challenge in putting together enough votes to get a law by then," he said. "It is what it is, which is the saying we always fall back on when it's not what it's not."
As vice president, Gore traveled to Japan at the end of the 1997 climate negotiations to sign the Kyoto Protocol, a move he has been widely criticized for, considering the Senate had already signaled that it had no intention of ratifying the treaty. This time around, Gore predicted that Senate leaders and the White House have a different strategy in mind.
"The history of that experience has made them properly sensitive to making sure that the odds are good for approval of a final product," Gore said. "And there is, of course, a number somewhere between 60 and 67 that would justify an all-out campaign for approval of a treaty that was based on legislation that did get the votes or more."
And Gore said he hopes Obama will attend the Copenhagen negotiations. "But he hasn't told me that he's made the decision to go, nor has anyone speaking on his behalf," he said. "Nevertheless, I think it's likely that he will go, and I hope very much that the political situation in the Senate will give him a stronger rather than weaker hand."