Shall We Kick Off The Energy Debate?

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in January with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (at left) (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(Washington, DC - Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) -- The much-anticipated Senate debate over energy and climate change legislation is getting an early start.

Lawmakers are set to vote today on a GOP-backed resolution stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate carbon and other ‘greenhouse gasses’. The vote is shaping up as an early test of where lawmakers stand on curbing carbon emissions in advance of a full-blown energy policy debate set for July.

The EPA branded carbon an “endangerment” to human health in December, 2009, clearing the way for the agency to regulate it as a pollutant. That came after a Supreme Court decision ruling the agency had the power to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act.

But amid mounting global pressure for US action on climate change, the move was widely seen as the Obama Administration’s way to pressure reluctant lawmakers to act on carbon caps or face regulations from the EPA.

Still, Republicans decried EPA’s anti-carbon threatened rule-making as a power-grab.  Today’s vote, if successful and the bill becomes law, would strip EPA of the authority to make new carbon-control rules.

“The EPA intends to take control of climate policy.  Take it away from the Congress,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the resolution’s main sponsor. “This resolution is about protecting the economy and preventing agency overreach. It’s as simple as that,” she said.

Here's Murkowski speaking this week in Washington:

Republicans are nearly unified in their opposition to a cap-and-trade policy that would limit carbon output from power plants, heavy industry and other sectors and then set up a market to trade permits for the right to emit carbon. That approach is at the heart of climate change and energy legislation put forward several weeks ago by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

The prospect for broad energy legislation has been uncertain all year in the Senate. But the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has injected new urgency into the debate in Washington. Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has signaled his intention to bring an energy bill to the floor in July.

Today’s EPA vote is far from a specific test of how lawmakers would vote on a complex set of energy policies. But it does give a sense of senators’ willingness to consider carbon caps, a proposal riven with as many regional divisions as partisan ones.

An early indicator came this week, with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia, announcing his support for the effort by Murkowski, the Alaska Republican.  “We must send a strong message that the fate of West Virginia’s economy, our manufacturing industries, and our workers should no be solely in the hands of the EPA,” Rockefeller said in a statement.

With 41 Republicans in the Senate, Democratic aides say they expect today’s vote to be close. “But we think we’ll prevail,” one leadership aide said.

Meanwhile, Democrats are wasting no time branding Republicans’ position on regulation of greenhouse gasses as a vote for “Big Oil” cast during the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.  “This begs the question – is there any special interest Republicans will not protect?” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.