WASHINGTON — After 20 hearings and countless speeches on the Senate floor warning of the risks of failure, a key committee starts work Wednesday on historic legislation to dramatically reduce global warming.
It's a tall order. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chamber's leading liberal, said she was up to the task.
"This is the biggest week of my life," she said Monday.
Critics, led by the committee's senior Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, also are energized for the fight. Inhofe is a global warming skeptic who thinks that rising temperatures have more to do with cyclical changes than with the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
By midday Tuesday, Republicans had filed more than 150 possible amendments. Inhofe has complained bitterly that the sweeping legislation, intended to cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than half by 2050, will impose huge costs on consumers and will hurt oil and coal-producing states such as his own.
But Matthew Dempsey, spokesman for the committee minority, said Republicans wouldn't maneuver to delay or kill the legislation.
"It's a foregone conclusion it's going to pass," he said. Rather, he said, the committee meeting "will provide Senator Inhofe and committee members the opportunity to raise major concerns about the bill, including the severe economic harm this bill will place upon American families and the American economy."
The legislation was introduced by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, and John Warner, R-Va. It would cap emissions and reduce them by 60 percent by 2050 through an allocation system under which companies are assigned pollution credits that can be bought, sold and traded.
While the bill has the endorsement of leading industry and environmental organizations, it also has its critics. Among the complaints is that it doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough and rewards the coal industry by initially offering cost-free emission credits based on historic pollution levels.
Boxer will try to fix some of these complaints in a rewrite of the bill that she'll offer at the start of Wednesday's session.
The changes would add additional controls on emissions by companies that burn natural gas, thus improving the 2050 goal to an overall 70 percent reduction, and would shorten by five years the period that industry would be assigned no-cost pollution credits, to trim the advantage of coal-burning companies. Her version also will add to the billions of dollars in benefits that states will draw on from the sales of the emission credits to cover such things as transportation improvements and help for low-income families with their higher fuel bills.
While the legislation won't be as aggressive as California's landmark global-warming law, it has broad backing among environmentalists and won California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement this week.
"We are well aware that our goals for climate stabilization cannot be achieved without similar efforts by the rest of the country," the governor said in a letter to Boxer.
The committee action comes as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is opening in Bali, Indonesia. Boxer hopes to lead a Senate delegation to the Bali talks with the legislative victory in hand.
"If this gets out of committee, it will send a powerful signal to the nation and the world that change is indeed coming," Boxer said. "This will be the most far-reaching global warming bill in the world."