WASHINGTON Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday began a drive to advance climate change legislation, a top Obama administration priority, amid warnings that a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives to reduce carbon emissions would have to be changed.
Among changes that could be sought to win broader Senate support for the bill are less ambitious carbon emission reduction goals, the inclusion of nuclear power as an alternative energy source, and tougher regulation of the pollution permits that companies could trade to each other.
President Barack Obama sent four Cabinet secretaries to Capitol Hill to testify at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it tries to build support for legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.
While Congress grapples with ways to control U.S. carbon emissions, Obama also wants the United States to play a significant role in global efforts. Currently, the United States and China are the world's leading carbon polluters.
"Clean energy is to this decade and the next what the space race was to the 1950s and '60s, and America is behind," testified Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Flanked by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Jackson said a climate change bill narrowly passed by the House on June 26 was "the right start."
But signaling the administration's willingness to consider changes, she added, "You all in the Senate have work to do."
Many view the House legislation as the most sweeping environmental bill ever attempted by Washington. It would force companies to reduce their carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, from 2005 levels.
But a tougher fight is expected in the Senate, where some moderate Democrats, especially from coal-producing states, could team up with many Republicans to oppose a climate bill.
"Today's hearing is the kickoff of a historic Senate effort" on climate change legislation, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer said. Left unchecked, global warming will lead to more "droughts, floods, fires, loss of species" and other problems, she added.
The California Democrat wants her committee to finish its work on a bill before a month-long congressional recess begins in early August. Several other panels also could weigh in by September 18, the deadline Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has set for them to finish.
Speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber, Reid said he wants the full Senate to debate a climate bill in September or October.
But Republicans on Boxer's committee warned against establishing the complicated "cap and trade" system embraced by the House-passed bill and favored by Boxer.
Under cap and trade, U.S. industries would receive permits to release less and less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the next four decades.
Meanwhile, utilities, steel mills, oil refineries and a range of manufacturers could sell those permits to each other on an as-needed basis.
Boxer has not yet released details of the bill she will pursue. But the senior Republican on the committee, Senator James Inhofe, warned of rising consumer prices if companies are forced to switch to more expensive alternative fuels.
"Once the American public realizes what this legislation will do to their wallets, it will be soundly rejected," Inhofe predicted.
Another Republican, Senator Lamar Alexander, continued his push for including nuclear power as one of the industries that would get breaks in the climate change bill, an idea rejected by House Democrats.
Some Democrats and environmentalists oppose new help for the nuclear industry. "Nuclear waste is highly toxic," said Senator Bernard Sanders, an Independent. "To the best of my knowledge, no state in the union wants it."
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said he was troubled that the House version "fails to chart a course toward lowering emissions in the transportation sector," a shortcoming he said the Senate bill should address.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)