In a boost for the president on global warming, the Senate on Thursday rejected a challenge to Obama administration rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other big polluters.
The Senate debated a resolution of disapproval, which gives Congress the power to block actions by an executive branch agency; it's not subject to the usual Senate filibuster. At issue was the EPA's authority, upheld by the Supreme Court, to regulate six greenhouse gases found to pose a threat to public health under the Clean Air Act.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the EPA's plan to begin restricting emissions by the biggest polluters next year a backdoor national energy tax, and he said Congress, not the EPA, should decide how to reduce greenhouse emissions.
"Now that it's clear Congress won't pass this new national energy tax this year, the administration has shifted course and is now trying to get it done through the back door what they haven't been able to get through the front door," he said.
Support From Some Democrats
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose top contributors include the electric utilities and the oil industry, led the effort to overturn the EPA's planned regulation of greenhouse gases.
"It would reduce emissions at an unreasonably high cost and through an unnecessarily bureaucratic process," she said.
Republicans charged that putting limits on gases such as carbon dioxide would end up costing jobs. That argument resonated with the half-dozen Democrats who voted with every Republican to bring up the resolution of disapproval. The final vote was 53-47.
One of those Democrats was West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, who said he was simply looking out for his state's coal miners.
"Their work matters. Their lives matter," he said. "And any regulatory solution that creates more problems than it fixes and causes more harm than good ... is no solution at all."
Even with Democrats who crossed the aisle, the vote to bring up the measure still fell four votes short of a simple majority. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was scornful of the effort.
"Forcing this vote seems to be a largely partisan political ploy, designed to divide Democrats and Republicans and to pander to the dirty, just-say-no crowd," Reid said.
Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Environment Committee, brought out large photos of oil-drenched birds during the debate.
"It seems to me more than ironic that Sen. Murkowski is advocating repealing the scientific finding that too much carbon pollution in the air is dangerous at the same time that every American sees graphic evidence on television, every single day, of the deadly carbon pollution in the Gulf of Mexico," Boxer said.
Push For Climate Change Legislation
Democrats accused Republicans of bowing to the wishes of oil industry lobbyists. But it was clear at least one Republican was also open to moving stalled climate change legislation — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
"You don't have to believe in the planet's going to melt tomorrow, but this idea that what comes out of cars and trucks and coal-fired plants is good for us makes no sense to me," he said.
Former Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth says that if the Senate does take up climate change legislation it will be because Republicans like Graham would rather pass a law than leave it up to the EPA.
"Potential action by EPA is certainly a spur to the Congress to act legislatively," he said. "And if you remove EPA's ability to regulate, you know, there is therefore no remaining requirement that Congress act in the public interest."
The White House earlier this week issued a veto threat, saying the resolution would block efforts to cut pollution that threatens Americans' health and well-being.
The EPA crafted standards on greenhouse gas emissions by big polluters after the Supreme Court ruled that those emissions could be considered a danger to human health and thus could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The rules are to go into effect next January.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that he anticipated the Senate taking up a broader energy bill in the next several weeks, "and hopefully we can get something done before Congress adjourns this year."
There were other disputes about the consequences of the Murkowski resolution. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the White House said the resolution would force the EPA to rescind the standards for emissions from future-model cars and light trucks it came up with earlier this year with the Transportation Department.
The result, she said, would be a need for the country to consume an extra 455 million barrels of oil.
Murkowski and others countered that the Transportation Department has long been able to set fuel efficiency standards without the help of the EPA.
Jackson also denied the argument of critics that the EPA rules would impose devastating costs on small businesses and farmers, resulting in major job losses. The EPA added a provision that exempts small sources of pollution from the regulations for six years.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report