WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats yesterday defeated a Republican effort to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from controlling the gases blamed for global warming.
Republicans still planned to pass an identical bill in the House today, even though it has little chance of becoming law.
In a 50-to-50 vote, the Senate rejected a measure by minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, that would have repealed a 2009 finding by federal scientists that climate change caused by greenhouse gases endangers human health, and would have prevented the agency from using existing law to regulate heat-trapping pollution. The amendment — to a small-business bill — needed 60 votes to pass.
Four Democrats — Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska — supported the McConnell bid, as did Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts. One Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, voted against it.
The White House has threatened a veto any bill that reaches the president’s desk. The House voted earlier this year to prohibit the EPA from spending any money to regulate greenhouse gases as part of a spending bill for the next six months. It is part of negotiations among the White House, Senate Democrats, and House Republicans to keep the government running.
Senate Democrats yesterday proposed less aggressive prohibitions on the EPA that would have delayed regulations for two years, exempted certain industries, or both. But the most votes any of the three alternatives received was 12. Republicans nearly unanimously voted against them, and so did most Democrats.
“When all is said and done, a bipartisan majority in the Senate issued a sobering message to EPA . . . suggesting it’s time to reverse course and put Congress back in charge of America’s energy policy,’’ Inhofe said in a statement.
Democrats focused arguments on what they said was an unprecedented reversal by Congress of a scientific finding.
“The fact is, why should we play doctor? I’m too humble to repeal science,’’ said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, taking the position of many Democrats against the McConnell amendment’s overturning of a finding by the EPA that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. EPA scientists had made the same conclusion under President George W. Bush, but the White House never acted on the recommendation.
A Supreme Court ruling in 2007 said the EPA could regulate greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Clean Air Act. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts brought the case against the EPA on behalf of other states and environmental groups.
Republicans, in hours of debate, painted EPA’s regulations as an overreach of government that will harm the economy and lead to job losses and must be stopped. They stressed that their efforts to hamstring the agency in the case of global warming would not affect other parts of the Clean Air Act that protect people from toxic and lung-damaging pollutants.
With the election 19 months away, Obama’s campaign could keep a low profile while Republicans pummel each other. But he won’t be content to watch passively as his potential rivals duke it out.
Three of the earliest-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada — will also be strongly contested in fall 2012. Likely Republican candidates already are assailing Obama there, and his aides say they can’t wait months to respond.
“Issues are going to be joined there, statements are going to be made, points are going to be raised,’’ top Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview.
“It behooves us to make sure that facts are well represented,’’ he said.
Democratic insiders say there’s another reason for Obama’s team to engage in early primary states, including South Carolina, which the president has little chance of winning in the general election: By strategically stirring the pot, his backers may manage to undermine those Republicans seen as most likely to give him a tough fight next year.
Democrats note that Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada drew a relatively weak Republican challenger last year, Sharron Angle, after his organization ran a virtual campaign against Sue Lowden, who was considered the stronger GOP contender. Angle beat Lowden in the Republican primary, then lost narrowly to Reid.
Since his 2008 election, Obama has kept at least one paid political staffer in every state on the Democratic Party’s payroll. Soon, those offices will expand dramatically in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and a few other early voting states. The Obama campaign will pay some workers, and state Democratic parties will pay others.