Is Senate Nearing a Bipartisan Climate Bill?

On April 22, 1970, millions of demonstrators across the United States took to the streets for the first annual Earth Day, a protest against what some called environmental deterioration.

Since then, Earth Day has become an international event, celebrated by millions to remind the world of the urgency of saving the environment. But as the 40th Earth Day approaches this week, the movement's momentum has yet to deliver new comprehensive energy legislation from the United States Congress.

The House of Representatives in June passed the "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009," a controversial cap and trade bill that imposed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.

Cap and trade rules let companies legally exceed emission limits by letting them trade or buy credits from other companies who pollute less.

A more stringent yet bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate, however, got little traction, and was eventually sidelined by the health care debate.

Now, senators are hoping to pick the momentum back up with a new set of proposals that addresses some of the criticisms of the earlier bill, and could nix cap and trade altogether.

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., will release a new climate bill a week from today that aims to implement a national program to reduce carbon emissions by around 17 percent in the next ten years, and 80 percent by 2050. The bill will go sector by sector, starting with utilities that will have to phase out emissions by 2012, manufacturing by 2016, followed by transportation and other industries. Tax credits and rebates will be provided based on the state and its socio-economics.

Details of the tightly sealed program remain murky. Supporters are hoping the bipartisan effort will jolt enthusiasm on the much-awaited climate bill.

The bill is a "missing piece. It puts a whole infusion of new energy into the legislative process. We are very excited about it," said Maggie L. Fox, president and chief executive of Alliance for Climate Protection, an environment organization founded by former vice president Al Gore.

But Democrats -- fresh from their decisive battle over health care overhaul and now facing hurdles in financial reform -- may have little political capital left to spare for this hot-button topic.

"The whole issue of cap and trade has become this symbolic kind of silliness. When issues get into that mindset on the Hill, it's easier not to do something than to do something," said Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. "I don't know that they're going to get the attention they need and the political emphasis to get this through."

Even if the bill were to pass the Senate, it would have to be voted on again by House members if changes are made. Many of the Democrats who voted for the climate legislation last year are much more wary now in the face of tough reelection battles in their home states. And at a time when climate change may not be as high on Americans' agenda as other worries, some may choose to avoid this sticky issue altogether.

The urgency of the global warming threat has waned slightly among Americans. A poll by Gallup last month showed that 48 percent believed that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 1997.

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