Democratic efforts to push a sweeping climate change bill through the Senate this year suffered a severe set-back on Tuesday, when a Republican boycott delayed a key committee’s vote on sending the bill to the full chamber.
The delay nixes any few remaining hopes that the US Congress can pass a bill limiting greenhouse gas emissions before the global climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December. Senate aides are now saying they do not expect the final legislation to even be debated on the Senate floor this year.
Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate environment and public works committee, on Tuesday went ahead with a hearing on her “mark-up” of the bill with half the committee room empty after James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican, called for a boycott.
Mr Inhofe had previously complained that the Environmental Protection Agency had not yet completed a full cost analysis of the bill so it would be improper to vote on sending the bill forward.
“There is no reason at all to do additional analysis and spend more taxpayer money when the work has already been done,” said Ms Boxer, whose bill, co-sponsored with John Kerry of Massachusetts, seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.
She rejected Republican suggestions she was pushing through the bill without proper information, saying the EPA presented an analysis based on “340,000-plus” pages of documentation.
Nevertheless, Ms Boxer on Tuesday offered an olive branch to Republicans by giving them until the end of the day to propose amendments and asking the EPA to return to the committee to answer any lingering questions.
Only one Republican – George Voinovich of Ohio – appeared and even then he stayed for only 20 minutes to deliver a statement, telling the committee that the boycott was “not a stalling tactic ... not a ruse”.
The EPA analysis was largely based on the Waxman-Markey bill that passed through the House but Mr Voinovich said there were “major differences” between the two, most notably the more stringent 2020 emissions target that would entail “greater reduction requirements and thus greater costs”.
“This bill will have an unprecedented impact on our national security, economy, environmental and energy needs,” he said. “For that reason, members should have a full understanding of what this means for their states and constituents.”
David McIntosh, associate administrator of the EPA, told the committee that any differences in the costings would be “vanishingly small” and reiterated that the information before the committee was relevant.
Ms Boxer said that Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader who will have responsibility for merging the committee bills, had promised another full cost analysis would be carried out when the final bill was drafted.
The bill already faces an uphill battle in passing through the Senate, where there is opposition not only from most Republicans but also from Democrats from agricultural and industrial states.
The House of Representatives narrowly passed a version calling for a weaker 17 per cent cut in emissions by 2020, while the Senate energy committee has passed a bill relating to energy legislation.
Separately, the US Chamber of Commerce called on the Senate to draft comprehensive climate change legislation.
“The chamber stands ready to work with Congress to resolve this issue in a bipartisan manner that recognises regional differences, the state of the technology, and the compelling need for a solution that minimizes overall economic impact,” it wrote in a letter to Ms Boxer and Mr Inhofe.
However, it did not endorse the cap-and-trade system for reducing emissions, as proposed by both the Kerry-Boxer and Waxman-Markey bills. The Chamber has suffered a wave of resignations as member businesses quit over its opposition to climate change legislation.