The Senate, after one of its first full debates on global warming, defeated a proposal Tuesday that would have required the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the impact of climate change in designing water resources projects.
The vote was 51-42 in favor of the amendment to a water projects bill, falling nine short of the 60 votes needed to approve it under rules set for the debate.
Sponsors of the proposal, led by Democratic Sen. John Kerry, said it was significant that the Senate was finally facing the issue head-on.
It was the first time in this session of Congress that climate change had reached a vote on the Senate floor, Kerry said. "We're making a statement here in the Senate to finally, once and for all, recognize the reality of what is happening with respect to climate change." Climate change is real, he said, "and it must be factored into our public policy in almost everything we do."
The proposal would have directed the Army Corps, in drawing up future projects, to use the best available climate science to account for climate change on storms and floods.
Wetlands and flood plains act as buffers between coastal communities and hurricanes and other severe storms, said Sen. Russ Feingold, also a Democratic sponsor of the legislation. "When corps projects destroy these and other types of natural barriers, they may put lives at risk."
Kerry said the current guidelines for corps project planning were written in 1983, long before scientists were focused on whether human activities were contributing to the warming of the planet.
The amendment was proposed on a $13.9 billion (euro10.3 billion) bill that approves hundreds of flood damage, navigation, ecosystem and water recreation projects along the Mississippi River, the Katrina-damaged Gulf of Mexico coast of Louisiana and in almost every other state in the country.
Opposition was led by Republican Sen. James Inhofe, top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate's leading skeptic of human-induced global warming.
Inhofe said the theory was being perpetrated by "environmental alarmists who want to scare people." He said the Kerry amendment was "clearly aimed" at moving the Senate toward a tax on carbon or a carbon cap-and-trade policy.
Backing from environmentalists
The committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, said she had received assurances from the Corps that they have long taken into account the possible affects of climate change on such phenomena as sea level rises.
The global warming measure had the strong backing of environmental groups, including American Rivers, Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation. Chelsea Maxwell, legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, said it was unfortunate that senators let their enthusiasm for passing legislation filled with hundreds of pet projects for their home states "get in the way of something important like the global warming amendment."
But she said the underlying bill could "help the Army Corps get back on the right track" by imposing changes in its project management that has been criticized for contributing to waste and abuse.
The Senate earlier rejected another amendment offered by Feingold that would have set up a water resources commission to recommend a process for prioritizing corps projects to ensure that the corps, which currently has a backlog of $58 billion (euro42.8 billion) in unstarted projects, devotes itself to those most important to the nation. A final vote on the bill is expected Wednesday.