WASHINGTON — By a narrow margin, the House of Representatives on Friday took the first legislative step in U.S. history to reduce the heat-trapping gases building up in the atmosphere and gradually shift America to cleaner sources of energy.
With strong pressure from President Barack Obama to move ahead on one of his priorities and over the strong objections from Republicans and some Democrats, the House voted 219 to 212. Eight Republicans voted yes; 44 Democrats voted no.
The measure is still a long way from becoming law. The Senate now will work out its own version, and the results of a planned vote there this fall are uncertain.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., one of the bill's main authors, nonetheless called it a historic moment.
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"This is a revolution. This is a moment in history," he said. "This is what the American people were calling for in the election in 2008, a fundamental change that breaks our dependence on foreign oil, creates job and reduces the pollution we put up in the atmosphere."
Markey said the bill would put the first enforceable limits on global warming pollution, "create millions of new clean energy jobs with whole new industries with incentives to drive competition in the energy marketplace" and save Americans money by updating efficiency standards on buildings and appliances.
The bill was an important political test for Obama and House Democratic leaders. Obama made an unusually personal pitch. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, for instance, was heading into a White House luau Thursday night when Obama asked him to stop at the Oval Office.
"He talked about how he wanted to go to Copenhagen and some other places and show how we're trying to change," Doggett recalled Obama saying during their 10-minute talk. "It's a strong case."
Doggett still had doubts Friday, but he voted for the bill.
Much of the House debate Friday focused on what the bill would mean for American household budgets. The mandatory reduction of emissions would raise the cost of energy from coal, oil and natural gas. However, the bill also contained many provisions that are intended to protect consumers and prevent job losses.
Money for these protections and for such efforts as training workers for new jobs in renewable energy and preventing tropical deforestation would come from the sale of permits for each ton of emissions of greenhouse gases. The number of tons of emissions allowed would decline each year starting in 2012.
Opponents said the bill would raise electricity and other prices and cost jobs. Citing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said it would cost $3,100 per household. The study's authors, however, have said that Republicans misinterpreted their work.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the bill would cost the average household $175 a year in 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated a lower cost and said that the measure would lower utility bills by 7 percent because of increases in efficiency.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said the higher costs of electricity would hurt industry. "The problem with this is, as you increase the cost to produce electricity that makes the United States less competitive in the global marketplace," he said.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., agreed: "This bill will drive up the cost of doing business in America, sending jobs to China and India."
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said the bill would "cost Texas families dearly" and that "with China and India not likely to go along, this will have no environmental benefits at all."
Democrats who supported the bill said it would result in a net increase in jobs. In addition, part of the money from emissions permit sales would go to compensate industries such as steel and paper that would be put at a competitive disadvantage.
"This bill is a tremendous opportunity to prevent a dangerous threat while creating millions of new jobs and driving new growth. It will end our dependence on foreign oil and keep us more secure," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who led efforts to craft the bill.
The bill also would require that the nation get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy in 2020; set energy-saving standards for buildings, appliances and industries; and set aside some of the value of the emissions permits for clean energy technologies, including $60 billion for efforts to capture and store emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Companies could buy or sell emissions permits as needed, and the market would set the price.
The cap on emissions set in the legislation would reduce them by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 said that deeper cuts would be needed to improve the odds of avoiding serious climate disruption such as rising seas and ocean acidification.
Recent studies show cuts should go beyond recommendations based on the panel's findings, said Bill Hare, a panel author and fellow at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
Many environmental groups supported the bill but said they'd like to strengthen it. Greenpeace USA and others, however, opposed the bill, saying it had been weakened too much and fell short of the emissions reductions needed to reduce the risk to climate.
On Friday, Obama said: "There's going to be more to do. We're not going to get there all in one fell swoop, but I'm very proud of the progress that's being made, and I think the energy bill that's being debated in the house is part of that progress."
Obama made the remarks before the vote during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel, Obama and other leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations will meet in July to discuss what actions their countries should take to improve chances for an international climate treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
The White House mounted its strongest lobbying effort since February, when it pushed members hard to pass economic stimulus legislation. Obama met with several members.
Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., was one of seven Democrats summoned to meet with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Those at the meeting who were undecided were taken to see Obama; Klein, a second-term Democrat, was supporting the bill.
"I thought this was the right strategy. This was the right moment," he said Friday. He saw his south Florida district benefiting from the emphasis on alternative energy sources.
Other members got calls from former Vice President Al Gore.
Among them was Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-N.Y. In a call that lasted about five minutes, Gore told the second-term congressman this was vote he would remember the rest of his life.
Arcuri told Gore how much he admired him. "I said I'd seen his movie a few times," the congressman said, referring to Gore's global warming film, "An Inconvenient Truth."
Still, Arcuri voted no.
"In the short term it will have a negative effect on my district because of the high power costs," he said.
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