WASHINGTON — The Senate Thursday defeated 53-47 an effort to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and President Barack Obama said the vote was a reminder of the need to pass more comprehensive climate change legislation.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's measure was backed by six Democrats and all 41 Republicans. Had Congress passed it, the White House said earlier this week that Obama would have vetoed it anyway, adding that the proposal would undermine efforts to promote alternatives to fossil fuels, especially as a broken BP well continues to spew as much as 50,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day.
Murkowski's proposal "would have increased our dependence on oil by blocking efforts to cut the harmful pollution that contributes to climate change," Obama said in a statement.
"The Senate chose to move America forward, towards that clean energy economy — not backward to the same failed policies."
The Senate spent six hours debating Murkowski's measure, which came up in a rarely used procedural move known as a disapproval resolution. Because of the unusual nature of the measure, the Senate put aside all of its other business to take up the resolution. That included considering legislation to extend unemployment benefits.
Calling the Clean Air Act "an awful choice for reducing" emissions that lead to global warming and distancing her effort from the Gulf oil spill, Murkowski made the case that allowing the EPA to write such regulations would cost jobs, hurt the economy and cede to the Obama administration authority that should be in the hands of Congress.
"It should be up to us to set the policy of this country, not unelected bureaucrats within an agency," she said.
Environmentalists also considered it a major victory, but hastened to point out that any potential climate change bill, unlike Murkowski's proposal, would need 60 votes to get to the Senate floor for debate.
The EPA has been working on regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions as part of its compliance with a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court required the agency to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger the country's health and welfare — which the EPA found late last year.
"It is time for Congress to face up to this serious issue, not stick our heads in the sand and deny the irrefutable science," said Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat.
Murkowski downplayed concerns that her resolution attacked the underlying science behind the EPA's move, saying her resolution was nothing more than a "check on EPA's regulatory ambition."
"This is not a debate about the science," Murkowski said. "Really, this is about how we respond to the science. We're not here to decide whether or not greenhouse gases should be reduced. We're here to decide if we're going to be allowed them to be reduced under the structures of the Clean Air Act."
The Obama administration has long said it prefers that Congress write the guidelines, and even if lawmakers are slow to act, it could be years before the EPA rules take effect.
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who's been working on a bipartisan climate change bill designed to curtail greenhouse gases, said Republican claims about an aggressive bureaucracy are disingenuous.
What they want, Kerry said, is to avoid passing any legislation that addresses climate change.
"This is going to be the great hypocrisy test resolution," Kerry said of his Senate colleagues. "How many of them are going to be on the front lines trying in fact to make the things happen that need to happen?"
The vote also came the same day as the release of a Washington Post-ABC News poll that shows broad public support for EPA oversight of harmful emissions. About 71 percent of those surveyed support federal regulation of greenhouse gases from sources such as power plants, automobiles and factories, the poll found.
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