At Senate Climate Hearings, Lots of Transport Talk and All Eyes on Baucus

The Senate environment committee today held the first in a three-part marathon of hearings on its climate change legislation, with supporters singling out the bill's investments in clean transportation even as one senior Democrat notably withheld his support from the measure.

max_baucus.highres.jpgSenate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) (Photo: Baucus 08)

The Senate climate bill calls for a 20 percent reduction in U.S. emissions by 2020, relative to 2005 levels. The legislation also sets aside nearly three times as much money for transit, inter-city rail, and other cleaner-burning transport than a similar bill passed by the House in June.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a sponsor of the effort to focus more climate revenue on transportation, credited environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) with doing more for transit than her House counterparts.

"It will make a huge difference on the infrastructure we need to conserve energy," Cardin said of the Senate climate bill. "We do subsidize the passenger car more than we do public transportation in this country. We need to change that."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also hailed the bill's dedication of valuable emissions allowances to rail, while reminding senators that the economic stimulus law's $8 billion high-speed rail fund would represent only the tip of the iceberg for America's under-performing passenger trains.

"We know [rail] is cleaner-burning," LaHood said, "and we know that when someone's on the train, they're out of their automobile. The benefits will be enormous in terms of getting CO2 out of the air."

But amid the hosannas for the climate bill's transportation provisions were signals of the rough political journey that faces the Senate legislation.

Republicans on the environment panel reiterated their vow to delay a committee vote on the climate bill, which was co-authored by Boxer and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), until they are satisfied with the amount of time given to examine the plan and for analysis to be done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). All GOP members of the committee left today's hearing before the four Obama administration witnesses had finished taking questions, further underscoring the partisan tension.

And Republicans were not alone in their criticism of the climate bill. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the powerful Finance Committee that plans to claim jurisdiction over emissions allowances -- including those for transit -- said he would pursue a softening of the bill's emissions reductions targets (which are already softer than international goals) and a preemption of the EPA's ability to regulate CO2. Baucus said:

I have some concerns about the overall direction of the bill before us today, and whether it will lead us closer to or further away from passing climate change legislation. For example, I have serious reservations with the depth of the mid-term reduction target in the bill and the lack of preemption of the Clean Air Act's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The "preemption" language Baucus refers to was included in the House bill, opening the door for Baucus and other Senate Democratic centrists to insist on its inclusion as one price of passing the overall measure.