msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/10/2011 6:52:49 PM ET 2011-03-10T23:52:49

The humble light bulb became a lightning rod for philosophical differences in the Senate on Thursday — a debate so vitriolic that while the focus was supposed to be on more efficient bulbs the talk went as far off-topic as abortion.

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"You favor a woman's right to abortion but not a woman or man's right to a light bulb," Sen. Rand Paul, R-N.Y., told an Obama administration official from the Energy Department testifying about the savings to consumers and the environment of energy standards.

"You're really anti-choice," he added, saying he supported a bill to repeal those standards.

"I find it insulting," Paul said, calling federal officials "busybodies" trying to tell Americans what to do.

"Where's this country gone?" echoed Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. "The government trying to fix this? That's not going to happen."

Paul, Risch and some of the other Republicans on the Senate Energy Committee argue the standards will do away with the traditional incandescent light bulb.

But industry representatives testifying before the committee emphasized that the standards, signed into law in 2007 by then President George W. Bush, do not impose a ban or require that people buy compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Industry supports the standards, saying they prefer a nationwide approach rather than "patchwork" laws across the states.

Three light bulb makers already have incandescent bulbs that meet the standards, the industry officials noted, and an industry-sponsored website, lightbulboptions.org, aims to help consumers choose.

Howard Brandston, a lighting consultant from upstate New York, countered that while the standards reflect "good intentions" the potential health and safety ramifications of new lighting has not been studied. "We need time to do that," he said.

The standards require new bulbs to use 25 to 30 percent less energy beginning in 2012. The rules call for further improvements in efficiency by 2014. The new standards have already taken effect in California.

The Consumer Federation of America, whose director testified in support of the standards, said the long-term electricity savings for consumers far outweigh the extra cost of the bulbs.

A February poll by USA Today found that nearly three out of four Americans have purchased energy-efficient light bulbs and 84 percent said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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