WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) — Top Obama officials joined Senate environment committee leaders to rev up enthusiasm for a major climate bill but faced opposition from Republicans and some prominent Democratic senators as well.
Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the second ranking Democrat on the committee as well as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was among those who quickly voiced reservations during the first day of climate legislation hearings by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Baucus said he had concerns with the overall direction of the bill and some “serious reservations” about its steep metrics for cutting carbon gas emissions.
“Montana, with our resource-based, agriculture and tourism economies cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change,” Baucus said. “But we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of climate change legislation.”
The bill, sponsored by the committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would mandate a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020, higher than the 17 percent cut called for in the House of Representatives’ version. It also would set caps on companies’ carbon emissions and create a market for them to trade unused allocations — a provision called “cap and trade.” The mechanism has been criticized by opponents as a secret carbon tax.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified Tuesday alongside other top Obama administration officials, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, rallying behind the provisions in Kerry and Boxer’s bill.
“I believe this is a workable mechanism to get this done,” Kerry told the committee. “By putting this target in place, I believe we will attract private investment and spur a new revolution in America.”
But the bill’s greenhouse gas emissions targets and its possible costs in higher consumer prices and job losses have rankled some Republican and moderate Democrat senators. None of the Republicans present Tuesday seemed likely to support the bill, though some did say the bill should include more support for the U.S. nuclear energy industry.
Baucus’ Senate Finance Committee is one of five other panels that have jurisdiction over the climate bill before it reaches the floor. There, the senator could be instrumental in shaping or rewriting its “cap and trade” mandates for carbon gas emissions.
With a mix of dissenters more generally united by geography and state industry than party, getting Baucus’ support could help the bill reach the 60 votes it would need to end debate in the Senate.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., another pivotal vote in the committee, voiced concerns about the impact on the coal and steel industries in his state, calling measures to protect jobs in Pennsylvania “critical.”
“When I hear comments about loss of jobs and higher costs for consumers, I’m very much concerned with that,” Specter said. “We all have the same objectives and the same goals. It would be very refreshing today if we could find a bipartisan answer.”
After testifying before the committee Tuesday, Chu indicated there are some cooperative efforts being launched by the administration behind the scenes to build consensus on the bill.
Chu said he met with moderate Democrats to discuss the climate legislation and also had a two-hour meeting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham has been working with Kerry to build bipartisan support for the bill.
“I have to say, coming away from that meeting, we were both very optimistic because we’re thinking, about 95 percent of the things, we agree on,” Chu said.
Even with the panel of U.S. President Barack Obama’s top environmental and energy officials on hand, Republican senators did not remain to hear testimony from the witnesses, trickling out one by one after giving their five-minute opening statements.
Baucus, who left the hearing for a meeting on the equally contentious healthcare reform bill, reiterated the need to craft a solid bill and one with a consensus behind it. Baucus worked hard to draft Republican support for the Democrats’ healthcare bill.
“We cannot avoid a first step that takes us further away from an achievable consensus from common-sense climate change legislation,” Baucus said.
“We could build that consensus here in this committee. If we don’t, we risk wasting another month, another year, another Congress, without taking a step forward to our future.”
Copyright 2009 by United Press International