Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said today that he has "serious reservations" about a major global warming bill and warned fellow Democrats to water down the measure in hopes of getting it through the Senate.
Speaking at the start of an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing where he is the second highest-ranking member, the Montana Democrat said he wanted to weaken the bill's 2020 target for greenhouse gas emissions -- now 20 percent below 2005 levels. He did not name a specific midterm target for the heat-trapping gases, instead telling reporters he hoped for "some modification."
The six-term senator also said he hoped to attach pre-emption language to the Senate climate bill, S. 1733, that stops U.S. EPA from implementing a 2007 Supreme Court opinion that opens the door to new greenhouse gas emission standards on industry.
"We cannot avoid a first step that takes us further away from an achievable consensus from common-sense climate change legislation," Baucus said. "We could build that consensus here in this committee. If we don't, we risk wasting another month, another year, another Congress, without taking a step forward to our future."
Baucus chaired the environment committee from 1993 until 1995, and his centrist voice carries tremendous weight in the party's leadership ranks. But Democrats also have a 12-7 majority on the EPW Committee, and his vote likely won't be necessary as Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) looks to move the bill in the coming weeks.
Instead, Boxer and Democrats face the critical question of whether they should wait to deal with Baucus later in the negotiations, as his concerns foreshadow a tough fight to win the 60 votes needed to pass a comprehensive bill.
"Certainly, his views are going to be heard, and his views are going to be taken into account mostly because he is similar to many other fence-sitters that are key to this," said Frank Maisano, an industry lobbyist for Bracewell & Giuliani, citing other senators from coal-producing and rural states, like Democrats Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
Baucus, who plans Finance Committee hearings next month on several issues central to the legislation, opened today's session saying he is willing to support a climate bill, albeit with caveats.
"The legislation before us is about our economy," Baucus said. "Montana, with our resource-based agriculture and tourism economies, cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change. But we also cannot afford the unmitigated affects of climate change legislation. That's why I support passing common-sense legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our economy. The key word in that sentence is 'passing.'"
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), another critical moderate vote on the environment panel, warned senators on both sides of the aisle about the "very heavy political overtone at the start of these hearings."
Specter, who faces a tough Democratic primary race next year, pushed back against committee Republicans who warned about the dire economic consequences that would come from passing the Senate climate bill.
"We're all concerned about job loss," Specter said, adding that he hopes to work on legislation that can win the backing of industry, environmentalists and labor groups like the United Mine Workers of America.