WASHINGTON -- A little more than a year ago, Sen. Barbara Boxer staged a rally on the Capitol grounds to introduce the most ambitious effort in the nation's history to curb climate change. On Thursday, the newly re-elected Democrat and environmental champion was thinking smaller -- a lot smaller -- about what Congress might accomplish on the global warming front.
That's what the collapse of sweeping anti-global warming legislation this summer and the drubbing Democrats took at the polls two weeks ago will do. The politics of global warming have shifted dramatically in Washington. A nationwide cap-and-trade system or tax on carbon emissions are, by all indications, out. Modest energy efficiency measures and boosting nuclear power and natural gas production could be in.
"Obviously the large ... bill that we wanted is not going to happen at this point," Boxer said during a 45-minute question-and-answer session in her Senate office. But "if we focus on energy efficiency, we can achieve a lot of reductions in carbon pollution."
With environmental issues causing regional as well as partisan divisions in Congress, it's hardly assured that lawmakers can forge consensus even on incremental bills. But Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, mentioned several areas of possible compromise: making federal buildings more energy-efficient; creating a loan program for landlords to modernize the energy systems of old apartment and office complexes; setting standards for how much of the nation's electricity output must come from renewable sources, such as solar or wind; and using the tax code to create incentives to use clean energy.
In a news conference just after the election this month, President Barack Obama said he could see working with Republicans to increase natural gas production and build more nuclear reactors, two items long sought by the GOP. Republicans have also voiced support for electric cars.
"There are a number of things with clear bipartisan support in Congress that should still have bipartisan support," said Kate Gordon, vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Thomas Pyle of the free-market Institute for Energy Research was less sanguine. "I think you're going to see two years of hopeless wrangling over these issues," he said.
Republicans and some coal-state Democrats want to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions, a threat that could create a difficult atmosphere for compromise on other energy proposals. Republicans are also expected to press for more offshore oil drilling.
Boxer said she sees part of her job in the next Congress as playing defense.
"We've got to protect the EPA," she said, "to make sure they continue going after the big polluters, including the big carbon polluters."
While opponents of sweeping climate change legislation clearly have the upper hand in Congress, Boxer said she'll continue to highlight what she sees as the serious environmental threat of global warming through committee hearings on the subject. Republicans will be invited to share their views, Boxer said.
"It will be contentious," she said. "But I think it's very healthy for the American people see the debate unfold."
In her first extensive interview with print reporters since returning to Washington, Boxer also spoke at length about other issues coming up in the Senate in the weeks ahead. She reiterated her support for legislation to overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military and said she plans to vote for the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children.
Boxer said she also intends to push legislation, long sought by Silicon Valley, to allow corporations to "repatriate" profits from abroad without facing a big tax hit. Roughly $1 trillion is parked overseas that could be spent in the U.S. if the tax burden were lifted, she said.
"It's a huge stimulus that wouldn't cost a dollar to the federal government," Boxer said. Obama has argued that reducing taxes on such income would amount to rewarding companies for expanding abroad.
Contact Mike Zapler at 202-662-8921.