The House of Representatives on Friday began debate on a controversial measure to cap US greenhouse-gas emissions. If passed, the bill would represent the most profound government intervention in America's energy use since Washington began regulating the fuel economy of vehicles in 1975.
The measure is one of President Obama's top legislative priorities. Yet the vote to advance the legislation to the House floor was a relatively close 217 to 205, and 30 Democrats defected to vote against it.
Democratic leaders continued to tweak the bill Friday in an effort to win as much support as possible for passage. A final vote was expected in the late afternoon or early evening.
"This legislation at long last begins to break our addiction to foreign oil and put us on the path to energy security," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, when kicking off Friday's debate.
The stakes of the legislative struggle over the bill were revealed in the stark language used by both opponents and supporters.
Republicans charged that the bill amounts to the largest tax increase in American history, which if passed would body slam the US economy back into deep recession.
Democratic supporters said in contrast that the legislation would create hundreds of thousands of new green industry jobs, while beginning to wean the nation off imported petroleum and curbing greenhouse-gas emissions that would otherwise pollute the world for generations to come.
"This is the most important energy and environment legislation to ever have been considered in the history of the United States," said Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
Cap-and-trade is the key mechanism
The complex energy bill is already more than 1,200 pages long. It would impose limits on the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that power plants, factories, and other industrial applications could produce.
The US would be forced to cut such emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and by 80 percent in the next century.
A so-called cap-and-trade system would be the means of this reduction. Under cap-and-trade, the US government would distribute emissions allowances that could be bought and sold, depending on whether a particular facility produced fewer gas emissions than allowed or wanted to pay to produce more.
Costs are in dispute
At the heart of the fierce debate over the bill is its possible effect on the pocketbooks of individual Americans.
Republicans, pointing to higher energy costs that would ripple through the economy, say that the price to consumers is impossible to predict and in all likelihood will amount to far more than Democrats believe.
GOP members also insisted that is foolish for the US to attempt such greenhouse-gas emission reductions in a geopolitical context in which China, India, and other developing nations refuse to undertake similar actions.
"I will not make my constituents poorer so that others can get richer at their expense," said Representative Lucas.
A handful of moderate and conservative Democrats, many from agricultural states, could provide the margin of victory or defeat for the energy/climate legislation.