WASHINGTON — As Congress began work Tuesday on groundbreaking climate legislation, Washington lawmakers were unusually optimistic on Earth Day 2009 about getting at least some climate-change legislation passed this year.
Lawmakers were talking Tuesday about finding common ground on energy efficiency measures. The tougher part will be putting mandatory curbs on the emissions from burning fossil fuels that scientists say are making the Earth's temperature rise.
The big question — and a key part of the debate that continues in hearings all week — will be whether payoffs in new jobs, expanded renewable energy and energy savings, along with a system to return money to taxpayers, can make up for most of the higher costs of fossil fuels.
The draft bill would set up a system to put a cap on emissions that declines each year. The government would sell or give permits to business for emissions, and companies could buy more permits from one another as needed.
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Many key parts of the bill remain to be worked out, including what the government would do with billions of dollars from permit sales. Some Democrats want most of the money returned to taxpayers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she expected a climate bill to pass this year.
"The timing of this challenge has been governed by our environmental concerns and by our national security concerns, but it's also governed by economic necessity," she said. "Our recovery and future prosperity hinge on whether the United States will be first in the world with a with a clean energy economy."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said that it was still early in the process, but "I think Congress wants to seriously and thoroughly address climate change."
Some Republicans were cautious, however, and others opposed sweeping changes.
"You crawl, then you walk and then you run," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who was a critic of past major climate-change measures but is working this year to find a compromise.
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the chairman of the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives, called the proposal "a declaration of economic war on the Midwest by the economic liberals on Capitol Hill."
"We're all for clean air, clean water and clean energy," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., "but we are not for taxing people out of their house and home to pay for some of these programs they want to bring forward."
Opponents of the plan mainly warn about its costs. Until Congress fills in the blanks in the bill about keeping costs down, they're impossible to predict.
The Environmental Protection Agency, however, reported this week that if most of the revenues are returned to Americans, household consumption would continue to grow and people at the middle- and lower-income levels would be better off than without the system to cap emissions.
The EPA said that the bill also would reduce reliance on oil, stimulate investment in technology to capture and store emissions from coal, boost renewable energy and create demand for new products that U.S. factories could fill.
Democrats said they'd start in listening mode. Sixty witnesses are lined up for hours of House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings this week.
Democrats should have an easier time winning House approval of their big plan, since they have a 77-seat majority there and debate is easier to cut off. The Senate, though, requires 60 votes to cut off debate, and Democrats control 58 seats, making bipartisan cooperation a must.
Democrats also are seeking consensus because of the nature of the problem. Long-term public support would be needed because cuts would need to get tougher each year for decades.
President Barack Obama has made climate legislation a priority, and the EPA took the first step last week to regulate greenhouse gases, a signal to lawmakers that change is coming even if they don't take action.
"It certainly increases the pressure," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.
Consensus will be difficult, but there appeared to be a few areas in which lawmakers might be moving toward agreement:
"There is room for compromise," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the Republican moderates who are considered crucial to an agreement, "but there is widespread concern about whether struggling middle- and low-income families will be hurt any further."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Tuesday that heat-trapping gases increased last year despite the economic downturn. NOAA scientists measure greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from 60 monitoring sites around the world.
"Only by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and increasing energy production from renewable resources will we start to see improvements and begin to lessen the effects of climate change," scientist Pieter Tans of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement.
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