WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama encouraged world leaders meeting in Italy to intensify the fight against global warming, legislation to cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases suffered a delay in the Senate on Thursday.
The leading Senate committee responsible for developing the climate change legislation has delayed by at least a month its crafting of a bill, leaving less time for Congress to fulfill Obama's desire to enact a law this year.
"We'll do it as soon as we get back" in September from a month-long break, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer announced.
Earlier this week, Boxer, a Democrat, said her committee had planned to complete work on a bill by early August.
A White House spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said, "The administration is continuing to work with the Senate to pass comprehensive energy legislation and believes it's on track." He would not discuss timetables, though.
On June 26, the House of Representatives narrowly passed its version of a bill to cut carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.
The Senate delay came as Congress was preoccupied with healthcare reform, Obama's top legislative priority, and as senators continued to bicker over how to reduce industrial emissions of carbon dioxide without putting U.S. businesses and consumers at a disadvantage.
At a meeting of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations in L'Aquila, Italy, leaders failed to get China and India to sign onto a goal of cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in half by 2050.
Nonetheless, Obama said "important strides" had been made in agreements to limit global warming. A White House spokesman said the president was confident "there was still time in which they could close the gap" with China and India, two large polluters, before December's talks in Copenhagen on a new U.N. climate change treaty.
Asked if the delay in her committee hurt chances the Senate will pass a bill this year, Boxer said, "Not a bit ... we'll be in (session) until Christmas, so I'm not worried about it."
But she did not guarantee Congress will be able to finish a bill and deliver it to Obama by December in time for the Copenhagen meeting.
"I want to take this as far as we can take it (before Copenhagen). The more we do the better," Boxer said.
Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which also has a significant role in developing the climate legislation, was more pessimistic. "I don't even expect it to come up this year" in the Senate, he told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants the full Senate to debate a climate change bill this fall. But since the chamber could be preoccupied at least through October with legislation expanding healthcare to some 46 million uninsured people, the environmental bill may get crowded out.
Even though Democrats control 60 of the 100 seats in the Senate, there are enough moderate Democrats who might not support a climate change bill. So several Republican votes will likely be necessary for passage, according to analysts.
Some senators are trying to use the climate change bill to expand U.S. aid to the nuclear power industry, a move that likely would offend some liberals.
"I've been working with some of my colleagues ... to strengthen the section of the House bill regarding support of nuclear energy as a clean energy source," Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, told reporters.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin has said he also wants changes to the House-passed bill, which already contained significant breaks for farmers. Four other committees also will review the climate bill.
Asked if he thought the Senate could pass a bill this year, Harkin, with 33 years serving in Congress, said on Wednesday, "My experience here is that these things take a lot of time."
Editing by Mohammad Zargham