updated 9/29/2009 7:11:55 PM ET 2009-09-29T23:11:55

Senate Democrats are pushing for a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2020 — deeper than what the House has passed and what President Barack Obama wants — according to a long-awaited bill that will test how serious the U.S. is about slowing global warming.

The Democratic bill is to be released Wednesday by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with a vote by the panel likely in late October.

House Democrats could win passage of only a 17 percent emission cut by 2020 and Obama originally had sought only a 14 percent cut. However, aides who worked on the Senate version said it includes measures that will make the Senate's target easier to achieve and cheaper for consumers.

The bill obtained by The Associated Press remains subject to change. But the overall carbon reduction requirements are expected to stand.

The bill includes an economy-wide cap and trade system that would require power plants, industrial facilities and refineries to cut carbon dioxide and other climate-changing pollution. While there would be an overall emission cap, polluters would be able to purchase emission allowances to limit reductions. The bill, however, does not lay out how emission allowances would be distributed, a contentious issue left for resolving later.

Tough negotiations ahead
The bill will become the starting point for difficult Senate negotiations in coming months as Democratic leaders seek to work out compromises to garner the 60 votes that will be needed for passage.

"It's a bill with all comers in mind," said David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, explaining there are several blank spots to be filled in.

The 800-page bill calls for a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions beginning in three years, to be tightened annually so that emissions would be 20 percent lower in 2020 than they were in 2005. Emissions would have to be 83 percent lower by 2050. While the long-term cuts are the same as required by the House in June, the Senate bill has bigger early targets, something many in industry oppose.

Democratic aides said information released since the House acted the 20 percent reduction by the end of the next decade will be easier to meet. U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas targeted in the bill, already are 6 percent lower than what they were in 2005, a reduction attributed largely to the economic recession, according to the Energy Department.

The bill includes provisions that its sponsors argue would help avoid severe energy price spikes as the economy shifts more and more away from cheaper fossil fuels, especially coal for electricity production. It would hold emission allowances in reserve so they can be made available if energy prices soar, said the Democratic aides who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the bill's release.

GOP opposition
The Democratic bill will be co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the environment committee's chairman, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., two of the Senate's strongest advocates for aggressive action to counter global warming. It is expected to be taken up, and likely be approved, by Boxer's committee in the coming weeks despite opposition from GOP members.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee's ranking Republican and a sharp critic of climate legislation, said he expects that Democrats will be able to push the bill through committee. But he urged Boxer to have a "fair, open and transparent process" and not add key parts of the bill "at the last minute" as did House Democrats.

As the bill began to circulate among environmental organizations, it became clear the legislation is viewed by both supporters and opponents as largely a beginning for what is expected to be intense and difficult discussions and debate among senators in the coming months over climate legislation.

"It's a starting point for negotiations," said Anthony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading proponent of cap-and-trade measures to deal with climate. "There are going to be efforts to strengthen it and efforts to weaken it."

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's trade group, said the bill fails to make clear how it will constrain carbon dioxide emissions and "appears to be following the (House) pattern ... which resulted in a political bidding process that picked winners and losers."

Republicans, with few exceptions, have voiced strong opposition to cap-and-trade climate legislation calling it a massive energy tax on consumers as energy prices increase amid the shift away from fossil fuels. And many centrist Democrats — especially from rural areas and from states with energy intensive industries — have expressed reluctance to support any bill that does not protect against energy cost spikes and protect domestic industries.

The Senate draft does not spell out how emission allowances will be distributed, leaving one of the most contentious issues to further negotiations. The House would provide for free 85 percent of emission allowances to various industries, especially electric utilities to help reduce the cost to consumers.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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