Amid House discord on climate issues, Senate Dems singing from same hymnal

While tension persists among House Democrats over their leadership’s plan to address global warming, Senate Democrats are stressing their unity and striving for a consensus that does not harm the economy or the interests of concerned members.

At the center of the Senate’s cooperative approach are two committee chiefs, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Although they back bills that take disparate approaches to global warming — Bingaman’s is projected to slow the growth of carbon emissions while Boxer’s aims for a steeper cut — the senators maintain near-daily staff contact and have set a fast pace.

“The more people focus on it, the better it is,” said a senior aide to one Senate Democrat. “We have the time to do it right.”

In the House, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) plan to form a select committee on global warming has riled Energy and Commerce Committee members, led by Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who fear infringement on their jurisdiction. Pelosi and Dingell are looking to put aside their differences (see related story).

The magic number in the Senate remains 60, the support level needed to avert a likely filibuster of any carbon-dioxide emissions caps by GOP Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), who chaired Boxer’s panel last year and does not believe that rising global temperatures are caused by human activity. Democrats point to a 2005 test vote on a nonbinding Bingaman resolution intended to put senators on record supporting global-warming solutions that do not jeopardize economic growth.

That resolution won 53 votes in the last Congress; with newly elected Democratic senators included, it would snag an estimated 59 votes today. The two Democrats who did not back the resolution, Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), indicated yesterday they were prepared to reexamine whatever climate-change legislation results from this year’s multi-committee effort.

“You’ve got to be under a rock not to look at it,” said Baucus. The Finance Committee, which he chairs, is poised to add a new subcommittee that would examine tax benefits for alternative fuels that could become part of a comprehensive climate-change bill.

President Bush called for a strong new push on energy independence in yesterday’s State of the Union, including 10-year renewable fuel standards almost five times the 2012 level passed in the 2005 energy bill. But one Senate Republican aide said the reality of rising U.S. energy demand would require new carbon-emitting power sources.

“The wind doesn’t always blow. The sun doesn’t always shine,” the GOP aide said. “You can’t count on them. You’ve got to build a coal plant.”

The aide also downplayed the significance of the Bingaman resolution, contending, “It barely passed. … Bingaman’s bill doesn’t meet his own test.”

The senior Democratic staffer fired back with a recollection: If Bingaman’s resolution had no impact on the climate-change debate, “why did [Vice President Dick] Cheney have his people working the floor immediately before the roll call?”

Bingaman will jumpstart coordinated Senate action today with a hearing on a climate-change draft bill he and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) began circulating this week. In a Dear Colleague letter accompanying the draft, Bingaman and Specter announced a series of staff-level work sessions, open to all senators, beginning next Friday.

In 2005 Specter voted against the climate-change bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), making his support a crucial bellwether for Democrats in search of emissions limits strong enough to matter but moderate enough to become law.

Next Wednesday, Boxer will hold a hearing on the multiple global-warming proposals already floated by a litany of influential members. Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) plan to add an updated version of their climate bill to the list by month’s end, and Carper said yesterday that supporters of his approach have reached out to Dingell.

Bingaman will hold a biofuels conference the day after Boxer’s hearing, where Energy panel members will hear from ethanol boosters at the Renewable Fuels Association as well as business giants Chevron, Dupont and Monsanto.

“One consensus [bill] may be asking for a little bit too much,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), an Environment panel member. “But once you start condensing views with all the evidence in front of us, I think, because of the importance of the issue, there has to be a consensus point of view.”

Most climate-change proposals focus on a cap-and-trade system for carbon emitters in the electric power, oil and gas, steel and coal industries. But the true lightning rod for debate may be increasing fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks, which Bush requested congressional authority to do in yesterday’s speech but Dingell has opposed.

“I don’t believe we can go anywhere before we address” fuel efficiency of cars, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said yesterday, adding that increased fuel economy could “absolutely” show up in the Senate’s global warming bill.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Democratic conference vice-chair, said in a statement yesterday that merely giving Bush the authority to raise standards “is not enough without a real commitment.”

Dingell, meanwhile, is not without ties to the Senate effort; Boxer’s committee staff director is a former senior aide to the Detroiter. Still, a second Senate Democratic aide said the House chairman’s reticence did not give his Senate counterparts any pause.

“Nobody said, ‘Oh no, Dingell’s not for this, what are we going to do?’ … We’re going to go ahead with what we think is the right policy,” the second aide said.