WASHINGTON — This morning, the U.S. Senate cast a historic vote on the first comprehensive global warming bill to make its way out of a committee.
The sweeping legislation failed to get the 60 votes needed to proceed, falling short by a 48-36 vote that leaves it essentially dead for the year. That was expected.
But surprising was who could be counted among the supprters of the tree-hugging, polar bear-loving legislation: Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the Salisbury Republican whose voting record is among the Senate's most conservative.
"I think it's very important that we move on this, because the costs of inaction are just too great," Dole said in an interview Thursday about her transformation. "The data became more and more voluminous."
She had her eureka moment more than a year ago, after poring over the science about climate change and coming to the conclusion that the Earth definitely is getting warmer.
She was further persuaded when two Senate buddies on the Armed Services Committee -- Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican John Warner of Virginia -- talked to her about climate change's impacts on national security.
She signed on and became one of just a handful of Republicans to support the bill, which allows companies to "buy" credits in exchange for emitting carbon.
She says the bill will lessen dependence on foreign oil.
"We're almost 60 percent dependent on foreign sources of oil, and look at where it comes from: Russia, the Middle East, Venezuela," she said.
Most members of her party -- and many Democrats, too -- oppose the legislation, in part because they have not been allowed to offer amendments.
But Jeremy Symons, national director of the National Wildlife Federation's global warming program, said he thinks more Republicans are beginning to sign on to the idea of fighting climate change.
"Senator Dole stepping forward to promote action on global warming had national ramifications," Symons said. "I'm witnessing right now a transformation of the policy on climate change. Senator Dole stepping out has been a big part of that."
Fellow Tar Heel Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, opposes the bill. He says it would do more to hurt the southeastern United States than any other part of the country because it targets coal-powered plants.
"It's a Ponzi scheme," Burr said. "As long as you can find someone you can buy a credit from, you can continue to emit."
The bill isn't expected to get the 60 votes needed today to move ahead, leaving it effectively dead for the year. But many environmentalists hope the bill will lay the groundwork for more discussion in 2009.
Dole knows her support surprised a few people, but she said she has been interested in climate change since the first part of her term.
"I certainly have made it known where I stand on this," Dole said.
She also worked behind the scenes last fall to help shape the bill into one more palatable to some of her core constituencies, including manufacturers and other business interests.
Among the changes were establishing the threat of a tariff on foreign companies that don't lower their carbon outputs to the level of American companies, an effort to keep manufacturers competitive.
Some of Dole's work doesn't please all environmental groups, but Symons said a broad coalition will have to include business interests for climate change legislation to pass.
The bill, known as the Climate Security Act, includes provisions for a variety of special interests, from job-training funds for renewable energy workers to funding for green buildings.
At its heart, though, the bill is a basic cap-and-trade system for energy companies that emit greenhouse gases. Companies such as coal plants would have a cap -- which would be reduced over time -- on how much they could send into the atmosphere. To exceed the limit, companies would have to purchase "credits" to go over the limit -- the trade -- including some from farmers and foresters who use environmentally friendly agriculture methods.
The bill has been endorsed by environmental groups, labor groups and several utility companies. Others, such as Duke Energy in North Carolina, have lobbied hard against it.
"I hope [Dole] will keep on track in keeping this thing moving forward," said Jane Preyer, director of the North Carolina chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund, a prime supporter of the bill.
A security issue, too
In a Senate floor speech Tuesday, Dole hammered her main theme about why she supports the bill.
"I understand this bill is viewed by most as an environmental bill -- which it is -- but it is also essential to our national security," she said.
She also said the bill had flaws in not focusing more on nuclear energy and not pushing for domestic oil and gas exploration.
How much of Dole's climate change work will roll into her re-election effort remains to be seen.
Asked whether she thought global warming would be part of her campaign, Dole said she thinks voters may be focused on other issues.
"Obviously it's something I'll talk about from time to time because it's a major issue that we face, but in terms of what people ask about, I think frankly the immigration issue will be talked about a lot more," Dole said.
Rival supports bill
Her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro, supports the bill, which her spokeswoman said fit Hagan's energy plan offered this spring.
Hagan's spokeswoman, Colleen Flanagan, questioned Dole's sincerity on climate change, saying that Dole has taken campaign contributions in the past from the oil and gas industry.