The Senate is making it tougher to pass the cap-and-trade legislation President Barack Obama wants as part of an effort to reduce global warming.
Lawmakers voted 67-31 on Wednesday to deny the legislation a filibuster-proof path through the Senate. That means 60 votes instead of a simple majority will be needed to pass the cap-and-trade proposal.
Republicans and Democrats are wary of Obama's proposal to allow the government to auction permits to companies to emit greenhouse gases, with the costs of the permits being passed on to consumers.
As the minority party in the Senate, Republicans had feared that Democratic leaders would use filibuster-proof rules to push through the cap-and-trade legislation.
The Senate, where climate legislation was defeated last year by strong Republican opposition, has made it clear that this time it wants the House to act first.
Waxman-Markey bill offered
On Tuesday, Democrats in the House proposed cutting greenhouse gases by one-fifth over the next decade, a faster clip than urged by Obama.
Their plan, seen as the first step toward Congress enacting climate legislation this year, was crafted to attract broader support among centrist Democrats. It includes measures to spur energy efficiency and to support technology to capture carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, from coal burning power plants.
The 600-page "discussion draft" will be the basis for climate debates in the coming weeks as the House Energy and Commerce Committee works to craft a bill by mid-May.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the draft "a strong starting point" and has told colleagues that she would like to get a climate bill passed before Congress departs for its summer recess in August.
The measure offered Tuesday by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts calls for reducing greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by mid-century. Obama has urged similar long-term reductions, but has proposed more modest early cuts with reductions of 14 percent by 2020.
Environmentalists embraced the proposal and said it includes the kind of flexibility designed to attract enough Democrats — those from coal-producing or heavy industry states, for example — to get it passed.
But getting the measure through the Energy and Commerce Committee, which Waxman chairs, will require compromises. The draft leaves for further negotiations one of the most contentious issues: It does not say how pollution allowances would be distributed or whether they will be sold by auction or given away to polluting industries.
Obama has called for auctioning off all emission credits and using the projected $650 billion in revenue to help people pay for higher energy costs and the development of new, more climate friendly energy sources. Business groups have been strongly opposed to the idea, arguing emission credits must be provided for free to energy-intensive industries to ease the cost of compliance.
"In a lot of ways that's the central question," said Markey in an interview when asked about the distribution of emission allowances. "We will have to work that out."
The House climate proposal outlines aggressive limits on greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. And it would allow polluters to find alternative ways of compliance by buying allowances or investing in so-called "offsets" such as tree planting.
It also would prohibit EPA from regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases independently under the current provisions of the Clean Air Act, a move the Obama administration has said it is ready to make if Congress doesn't act.
Costs to consumers an issue
The Democrats also sought to blunt some of the costs of the program to consumers by requiring tougher energy efficiency standards from appliances, buildings and cars and by requiring utilities to make at least 25 percent of their electricity from solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.
But the Waxman-Markey draft was quickly denounced by Republicans as a path toward dramatically higher energy prices.
"It would raise taxes on every American who drives a car, flips a light switch or buys a product manufactured in the United States," argued House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the Energy and Commerce Committee's ranking GOP member, said the Democrats were trying to "save the planet by sacrificing the economy." He promised to produce a Republican alternative for the committee to consider.
Democratic supporters of the bill insisted that costs can be contained and that dealing with climate change will have economic benefits.
"Our goal is to strengthen our economy by making America the world leader in new clean energy and energy efficiency technology," said Waxman in a statement.