The McCain-Lieberman amendment to the energy bill, which would have instituted mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, went down in defeat in the Senate yesterday. The defeat wasn't a surprise to anyone, including co-sponsor John McCain. What did seem surprising, at least on first blush, was that the amendment lost by a wider margin, 60-38, than it did in 2003, when it went down by a vote of 55-43.
But before you blame the Republican majority in the Senate, note that six Republicans voted for the amendment this time, and 11 Democrats against it. Those 11 Democrats include four Democrats who voted for the amendment the first time around in 2003.
What happened? Two words: nuclear subsidies, which might seem like a compromise to win Republican votes, but which succeeded in alienating a number of Democrats.
"While I voted for a similar amendment in 2003, unfortunately, the current version of the amendment includes over $600 million in taxpayer subsidies for the creation of new nuclear power plants," Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold said in a statement. "The nuclear industry is a mature industry that does not need to be propped up by the taxpayers. Our nation faces an ever-growing budget deficit and we must be fiscally and environmentally responsible."
Another vote switcher, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, said she voted against the ammendment this time because it included nuclear energy alongside wind and solar as sources of "clean" energy. "The nuclear industry is once again knocking on Uncle Sams door asking for federal subsidies to pad their bottom line," she said in a statement. "We should oppose the nuclear industrys latest effort to raid the public purse. Nuclear power is not the solution to climate change, and it is not 'clean.' The nuclear industry has not solved its waste and safety problems. By subsidizing the creation of new nuclear plants, we are condoning the creation of more waste and turning a blind eye to the hazards associated with nuclear power. . . . The nuclear industry has already benefited from $145 billion in federal subsidies over the last fifty years. Truly clean and renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, have received just $5 billion."
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, another Democrat who voted for the ammendment last time and against it this time, also objected to pork for nukes. "The nuclear issue is the sole reason we're not for it," said Allison Dobson, a spokesperson for Harkin. She cited ongoing concerns about nuclear waste -- Yucca Mountain, anyone? -- and the fact that nuclear power plants can be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Instead, the Senate passed, 66-29, another amendment to the energy bill that relies on voluntary curbing of greenhouse gas emissions. The amendment, brought by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, includes $2 billion over five years to support R&D for new technology to reduce greenhouse gases and tax incentives to use them. But lacking teeth, it could amount to nothing more than a lot of hot air as the world burns.