Senate Republicans failed yesterday to halt the Obama administration's plan to regulate greenhouse gases, engulfing the chamber in a sprawling daylong debate that bounced from climate skepticism to posters of dead birds smeared in oil.
The effort unraveled nearly seven hours after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) launched her measure seeking to undo U.S. EPA's scientific findings that carbon emissions endanger human health. It snagged on a procedural vote that fell four supporters shy of reaching the 51 votes needed to proceed, saving senators from a rare roll call on federal plans to reduce greenhouse gases.
Republicans voted in unison, with some arguing that the emission program would suffocate millions of jobs and others asserting that EPA's plan is an unparalleled power shift toward "unelected bureaucrats," weakening Congress. Altogether 47 lawmakers, including six Democrats, supported moving forward with a vote to reverse the agency rules.
"It would be an unprecedented - unprecedented - power grab," Murkowski said on the floor, claiming that millions of residential buildings, schools and businesses "found in every town in America" would shoulder new costs from cutting carbon.
The debate could cloud the Senate's broader effort to consider energy and climate legislation this summer, perhaps deepening partisan divides as Democrats hunt for a handful of Republicans to support capping and pricing carbon emissions.
One thing appears clear: Murkowski, once considered a potential supporter of a climate bill offered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), is likely out of reach. She said EPA's unbending emission rules were being used to "intimidate" senators into rushing ahead with "bad legislation" that could replace the agency's regulations.
Other Republicans that Kerry and Lieberman had hoped to recruit, like Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, lined up with Murkowski yesterday. So did Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), all considered swing votes on climate legislation.
Math points to 61?
But their positions yesterday do not foreshadow how they might vote on climate legislation, according to observers and lawmakers. Several Republicans said they were supporting Murkowski because they believe Congress should establish climate policy, not the EPA.
"It would be overly simplistic to say this vote is a mirror of a future [climate bill] vote," said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for Natural Resources Council of Maine. He noted that Collins and Snowe believe it's Congress's role to pass a bill.
"I think it will increase expectations and hopes that they are going to step into the ring and help pass a comprehensive climate bill this session," Voorhees said.
To that point, Snowe said after the vote, "I continue to believe that the science demonstrates that carbon emissions are a human endangerment." Still, she has repeatedly expressed concern that the sweeping approach promoted by Kerry and Lieberman could burden small businesses with higher fuel prices.
Collins also careened away from her conservative colleagues, some of whom questioned the scientific findings around climate change. Instead, she went to the floor to promote a "cap and dividend" bill she authored with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
Observers sifted the messy debate for clues about Senate action on carbon legislation, which has stalled as the chamber races into its summer session.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says the vote yesterday reveals a path to 61 senators who might support climate legislation. Her calculation begins with the 53 Democrats who opposed Murkowski's effort, and adds another eight lawmakers - including five Republicans - who expressed support for reducing emissions during the daylong debate.
"Today's vote sends a clear signal that the Senate must act now," Claussen said in a statement. "The Senate must invest its time and energy over the next two months to find the common ground solutions required to pass meaningful clean energy and climate legislation."
Chelsea Maxwell, a former climate aide to past Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), came to a similar mathematical result.
"You have to see the positive," she said.
One Dem: Climate bill next year
But there's evidence for less optimism: 47 senators signaled discomfort with a federal policy reducing greenhouse gases. Six of them are Democrats, a margin of mutiny that, if transferred to a vote on climate legislation, would likely spell disaster.
They include: Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana; Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; Ben Nelson of Nebraska; Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia; and Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas. All come from states that lean heavily on fossil fuels.
The final tally, combined with heightening campaign partisanship, seems to have convinced some cap and trade supporters that the climb is too steep this year.
"I think it's difficult to pass a big bill a few months before a big election," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the vote. "But I think it can get done next year."
Still, Democrats clearly relished their victory yesterday. As the vote count neared completion, Kerry embraced Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the opposition to Murkowski's resolution hours earlier by launching a counterattack with poster-sized images of blackened birds killed in the BP oil spill.
"They're almost too painful," Boxer said of the images. "But for someone to come to this floor to say too much carbon is not dangerous, then I'm sorry, we'll have to look."
Murkowski tried to frame the debate around jobs. She warned early in the debate that Democrats would use "misdirection" to describe her resolution as a payoff for Big Oil, a defense of the oil spill and an attack on climate science.
"These are red herrings," she said, arguing that overreaching bureaucrats are the real problem. They want to "unilaterally" amend the Clean Air Act to regulate gases that Congress never intended to include in the law, Murkowski said.
Over and over, Republicans said Congress, not EPA, has authority to create climate policy. And Democrats agreed, challenging their GOP colleagues to engage in carbon legislation.
"This is going to be the great hypocrisy test resolution," Kerry, whose bill would pre-empt EPA's carbon standards, said on the floor. "On the one hand, [Republicans] say it is not the job of the EPA, it's Congress's job, and then they stand in the way of Congress doing its job in the first place."
President Obama said the vote is "another reminder of the urgent need to pass legislation" that pushes the nation toward clean energy.
"Today, the Senate chose to move America forward, towards that clean energy economy - not backward to the same failed policies that have left our nation increasingly dependent on foreign oil," Obama said.
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