Upper chamber bristles at criticism from abroad on climate change pace

Senators from both parties bristled Tuesday at international pressure to pass climate change legislation ahead of the United Nations’ (U.N.) December summit on global warming.

“I’m not sure that the Senate is going to be dictated by the timing in December,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said of the upcoming gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark. “It would be helpful to go to that very important meeting with legislation, but I’m not sure people are going to feel comfortable rushing it.”

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Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who opposed a global warming bill creating a cap-and-trade system last year, said he doesn’t pay much attention to what people from other countries say about the Senate.

“We’re going to do it the way we think it’s appropriate to do it,” Nelson said. “And we will not be driven by their criticisms.”

The European Union (EU) expressed frustration at the Senate’s lack of progress on a bill that would limit companies’ production of carbon emissions that are causing global warming. But GOP and centrist Democratic senators, divided on proposals being pushed by the White House and liberal Democrats, said they will proceed on their own timetable.

“There are some who are saying that we have to hurry up and do it yesterday because Copenhagen is coming. This is a serious enough issue that we must take the time to do it right,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on a Republican National Committee conference call.

Addressing the U.N. Climate Change Summit in New York on Tuesday, President Barack Obama downplayed congressional delays as he defended America’s commitment to the issue.

In his speech, Obama claimed the U.S. has made more progress in the past year than at any other time. He boasted of House legislation passed earlier this year that capped carbon emissions, but he did not mention Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) announcement that the bill would not be taken up in the upper chamber until next year.

Liberal Democrats, who have been pressing for the Senate to move more quickly on climate change legislation, shared Europe’s frustration.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the EU is right to blame the Senate for blocking long-needed action.

“Partly, it’s the fact that healthcare is crowding everything else out, but it’s also partly because the polluting industries see the Senate as a place where they can hold 40 votes,” Whitehouse said.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) plan to release their climate change bill within “a matter of days,” Kerry told The Hill. He said that the bill would arrive on schedule, but he didn’t dispute the charge from Europeans that action has run into delays.

“The U.S. has been dragging its feet for eight years,” Kerry said.

While U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed hope that countries would sign an agreement in Copenhagen to cut emissions, Europe has blamed the United States for stalling world action. John Bruton, the EU ambassador to the United States, told the Financial Times that the Senate is “acting as though it is the only deliberative body in the world and that we should all wait until it gets healthcare passed.”

When asked about Bruton’s criticism, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shot back, “Well, I don’t think there are 10 Americans that know who he is.”

The divisions between Europe and the United States spilled out into the open Tuesday just as Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke of their plans to reduce carbon emissions.

Obama said that countries should work together on a “flexible and pragmatic” response by the end of the year. By failing to address global warming, “we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe,” Obama said.

Hu said China would set “mandatory national targets” for reducing energy use that leads to heavy emissions, as well as for growing forests.

Lawmakers generally welcomed the Chinese commitments to action. Worried about the effects of new carbon emissions restrictions on U.S. companies, they have argued against new domestic regulations unless China, India and other nations with rapidly developing economies institute their own measures.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is working with McCain and other centrist senators to find broad support for a climate change bill, said that Hu’s commitment to targets was “a very significant and encouraging step.”

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“No question there’s a certain amount of people here who will not take on the responsibility that we have to take on to do things to deal with climate change unless China also does,” said Lieberman, whose bipartisan group is looking at ways to increase U.S. nuclear power.
Senate Democratic leaders acknowledged that health reform, not climate change, was at the center of the Senate’s attention.

Reid said the legislation will be pushed “as hard and as fast as we can,” sidestepping questions about the chamber’s agenda, while Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Senate is simply busy.

“I wish we could have done everything we had to do by now, but it just takes time,” Durbin said. “It’s a new president, a new Congress and a big agenda. It just takes time.”

Sam Youngman contributed to this article.