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Boxer preps the Senate to act on climate

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) isn’t wasting any time. The chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on climate policy today that sought to build on legislative momentum created by the House’s passage of the Waxman-Markey bill last month. This is the first step towards marking up a Senate bill — a process Boxer hopes to complete before Congress takes its break in August.

The Obama Administration sent four cabinet-level officials — Chu (Energy), Jackson (EPA), Vilsack (USDA), and Salazar (Interior) — to testify before the committee. Their testimony embraced the basic framework of Waxman-Markey and urged the senators to move quickly with a Senate proposal.

In opening remarks, Committee members revealed where they stand on climate legislation. No surprises here: the Democrats are generally for it while the Republicans are against. Sen. Boxer said she expects the Committee bill to offer “a way out of the environmental and economic challenges we face.” Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking minority member, said “once the American public realizes what this legislation will do to their wallets, they will resoundingly reject it.”

More notable was Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who wants to see a large role for nuclear energy in a climate bill. If and when a bill reaches the full Senate, Alexander will be a swing vote on most whip lists (60 senators are needed to cut off debate). A recent assessment by Environment & Energy Daily has 45 senators voting “yes” or “probably yes,” 32 senators voting “no,” and 23 senators undecided.

Much like the last days of House debate on Waxman-Markey, we can expect a lot of horse-trading in the Senate cloakroom to secure the necessary votes. Here’s the key question for Sen. Boxer and other Senate leaders: Can they preserve the integrity of the cap on greenhouse gases? Waxman-Markey calls for a 17% reduction in 2005 emission levels by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050. Many scientists say this is barely enough to save us from catastrophic climatic impacts. The Senate will debate the methods and the means, but it must hold firm on the cap.

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