WASHINGTON - While Republicans succeeded Friday in effectively killing major bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate to cut greenhouse emissions that contribute to global warming, environmental groups expressed hope that the three days of debate on the measure have set the stage for success next year after the November elections."
The American people are seeking a change from the kind of cynical political games we saw (the Republican leadership) play this week," said Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, after the bill's supporters fell 12 votes short of the 60 they needed to cut off debate and force a vote.
"While these procedural ploys may have succeeded in today's closely divided Senate, we are confident that a larger pro-environment majority will allow us to prevail in the next Congress," he added.
The 48 votes cast to halt debate on the Climate Security Act (CSA) marked a significant advance from the 38 votes that similar legislation gained in 2005.
In addition, six senators, including the two presumptive presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, who were not present to cast their votes Friday, sent letters saying they would have voted in favour of the act.
"I think people around the world are going to be greatly encouraged by the fact that 54 members of the U.S. Senate are saying they want to support a real response to global warming," said Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman who, along with Republican Sen. John Warner and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, co-sponsored the CSA.
The Senate bill, if passed, would have required that total U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases be cut to 19 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and up to 71 percent by the year 2050 primarily through a "cap-and-trade" system that would give companies financial incentives to reduce their emissions. The U.S. currently account for about 25 percent of the world's total greenhouse emissions.
The legislation also proposed the creation of a 40-year, 800-billion-dollar "tax relief fund" to encourage energy consumers to switch to cleaner technologies.
President George W. Bush, who has consistently opposed mandatory curbing or reducing of emissions, threatened to veto the measure if it was approved by Congress. The White House claimed on the eve of this week's debate that the bill would cost the U.S. economy six trillion dollars by 2050, while some of the Senate's fiercer foes, backed by an ad campaign sponsored by oil and coal interests and the utilities that depend on fossil fuels, argued that it would hit poor people particularly hard at a time when gasoline prices have reached unprecedented heights.
"At t a time when the economy is struggling, when the price of gas, food and power bills are skyrocketing, this giant tax would be an unbearable new burden for Americans," argued Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
But, instead of debating the bill's main features on the merits, the Republican leadership relied on procedural manoeuvres, including the threat of a filibuster, to derail the proposed legislation. On Wednesday, several Republican senators demanded that the clerk of the Senate read the nearly 500-page bill in its entirety, thus holding up business for some 10 hours.
The move forced the Democratic leadership to file a motion for "cloture", or ending debate, which requires a super-majority of 60 votes out of the 100-seat chamber. While the motion prevailed 48-36, the leadership decided it was useless to continue debate.
Still, green groups expressed satisfaction with the week's events and their culmination, even as they called for the introduction of stronger legislation in the new Congress which many political analysts believe will likely feature as much as a 58-seat Democratic majority (compared to a mere 51-seat majority now) and as many as 25 more Democratic members in the House of Representatives.
"While this vote fell short of the 60 votes needed for the bill to proceed, it did confirm that the Senate is growing greener as the climate worsens," said David Moulton, director of Climate Policy at the Wilderness Society, one of the country's biggest grassroots groups.
"We can now say that we are an election away from the United States taking responsibility for its share of the global warming problem and leading the world toward a clean energy future," he added.
"The Climate Security Act made history as the first comprehensive stand-alone global warming bill to reach the Senate floor," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC).
"Unfortunately, allies of Big Oil and Big Coal used parliamentary tricks to obstruct progress toward building the clean energy future we need to free ourselves from these special interests and avert the worst consequences of global warming. Once we have a new president who shows real leadership on global warming, defenders of the status quo will no longer be able to thwart the public's desire for change, as they did today," she added.
Some groups, however, stressed that the new Congress needed to go far beyond the CSA to effectively address the challenges posed by global warming, even as they deplored Republican efforts to defeat it.
"What was lost in the sideshow on Capitol Hill this week is the fact that the CSA, as written, would have been woefully insufficient to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global warming," said John Passacantando, the executive director of the U.S. chapter of Greenpeace.
"After seven years of inaction from the Bush White House, and little better performance by the Senate, eyes now turn to the new administration and Congress to see if they can get it right on global warming," he said.
Friends of the Earth noted that most climate scientists have called for emission reductions of at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts. Under the CSA, those reductions would amount only to 25 percent. The group, which called the bill "wholly inadequate", also warned that the bill's cap-and-trade scheme could prove a major boon to major corporate polluters and the nuclear power industry.
© 2008 Inter Press Service