Congress's sci-tech agenda to shift under Democrats

Global warming and stem-cell research are topics that will give bipartisanship on the Hill an early test.

For clues to whether bipartisan cooperation in Washington will take root or disappear from the table as quickly as the china after last week's get-acquainted lunches at the White House, watch how some key science and technology issues play out.

Ordinarily, broad science goals – such as better science education or the American Competitiveness Initiative – draw bipartisan support. But there are some divisive science topics on the Democrats' early agenda – namely embryonic stem-cell research – and these highly charged science and environmental issues will be one barometer of the durability of cross-aisle cooperation.

"If this stated spirit of bipartisanship is to occur, one of the best places to look is going to be in the area of science and technology," says Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "If it doesn't occur in science and technology, I wouldn't expect that it's likely to occur elsewhere."

The potential for fractiousness exists in a number of policy areas where the ideas of the new Democratic majority differ from those of Republican lawmakers or the Bush administration. Among them are funding for research into alternative-energy sources, what to do about global warming, the future of the space program, and charges that the Bush team has muzzled federal scientists and ignored scientific results in crafting environmental and public-health regulations.

Players who say they felt disenfranchised when GOP lawmakers dominated Capitol Hill view the Democrats' post- election ascension as an opportunity. Several environmental groups are slated to hold a joint press conference Monday laying out their collective agenda to address issues ranging from grazing on public lands and the state of national parks. They are expected to push for measures to curtail global warming that are tougher than the voluntary approaches the Bush administration has offered so far.

In the House, Democrats are identifying a series of hearings they want to hold that deal with these themes. In the Senate, Barbara Boxer (D) of California is slated to take the helm of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee. Last Thursday, in a briefing with reporters, she said she aims to draft legislation that contains elements of a California-like approach to curbing emissions of greenhouse gases. The state aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

The midterm election, which unseated several moderate Republicans, gave the GOP delegation a more conservative tone, analysts say. And several incoming Democratic freshmen take conservative positions on a number of issues.

Still, some environmental groups are optimistic that their issues will at least get a hearing. At best, they will find allies among the more-conservative freshmen.

"At least on some of the environmental issues – energy security, environmental health issues, even global warming – these are not always liberal versus conservative issues," says Karen Steuer, vice president for government affairs at the National Environmental Trust in Washington. "In the last Congress, we could frequently work in a bipartisan fashion [with individual Republican lawmakers] on a fair number of environmental issues." The barriers came at the doorstep of the GOP leadership, which "refused to bring our issues to the floor for a vote," she says. "We couldn't even get an honest debate and a vote."

With a presidential election only two years away, it may be unrealistic to expect large-scale changes in science or environmental policies, several analysts say. Instead, they continue, look for oversight hearings that are more robust.

One issue expected to receive more scrutiny involves what has come to be called the GOP's war on science. Inspectors general at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are investigating allegations that political appointees have tried to muzzle scientists whose views, based on their research, run counter to Bush administration policy. In other cases, critics charge that political appointees at regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency have disregarded the best available science in crafting environmental regulations that are weaker than critics say they should be. Many states are in open revolt against the EPA's rules for emissions of mercury and particulates, for example, opting to set up their own tougher regulations.

Another area ripe for tighter oversight is NASA and the president's Vision for Space Exploration, adds Ray Williamson, with the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. In hearings before the House Committee on Science, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed support for the effort in general. But, he notes, they worry that the White House isn't giving NASA the money it needs to do the job without sacrificing other important activities.

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