Capitol Hill is accustomed to famous visitors, but its guest today is an especially hot ticket: Al Gore, who left Washington as a defeated presidential candidate and returns as the celebrity spokesman on the world’s most crucial environmental issue.
The former vice president will be the star witness on hearings about global warming, a Gore passion that has moved center stage in the Democratic-controlled Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.
Interest in Gore’s televised hearings before House and Senate committees is so high that a bigger hearing room has been reserved, extra rooms have been set aside for the anticipated crowd and photo opportunities have been added to the calendars of top Democrats.
When Congress rolls out the green carpet today, it will complete a dramatic transformation for Gore from the dismal days after he conceded the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election.
Then, Gore’s campaign was faulted by fellow Democrats for losing the presidency to Republican George W. Bush. Now, congressional Democrats hope Gore, fresh from his appearance at the Oscars, will electrify their efforts to pass a global warming law.
“What can I say? Time is a healing force,” said Donna Brazile, a political consultant who managed Gore’s 2000 campaign.
Gore, who stars in the Academy Award-winning documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth,” agreed to speak about climate change, a spokeswoman said, because he believes that there may be a good chance to get something done.
The former Tennessee senator, a 24-year veteran of national politics, has given his now-famous slide show, which vividly depicts the devastating effect of warmer temperatures, to worldwide audiences as diverse as the French National Assembly and a crowd of 10,000 in Boise, Idaho.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, invited Gore to be the sole witness before her panel because he “has awakened the nation to the issue.”
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who will head a new House committee on energy independence and global warming, said, “What is truly amazing is the extent to which Gore has led the charge for new global warming policy, even without the auspices of elective office.”
But Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is unimpressed by the new Gore mission. “Those who believe all his garbage are going to be excited to death,” he said, “and the rest of us are going to ignore it.”
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said he expected Gore to put on an excellent performance at the Senate hearing. “He got an Academy Award. I would expect nothing less of him,” he said.
The last former vice president to appear as a witness was Walter F. Mondale, who testified in 1997 about improper fundraising in the 1996 election, said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
Citing the improved political climate for global warming legislation, environmentalists hope Gore will provide an additional charge. “We’re no longer in the realm of the impossible. We’re now in the realm of the possible. Gore is going to help make it more possible,” said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program.
His testimony comes as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on Tuesday became the latest lawmaker to introduce a global warming bill and as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, campaigning in Iowa, called for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
Waxman has had an easier time finding cosponsors for the measure -- he was up to 127 on Tuesday, almost all Democrats -- for legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Even with Gore spotlighting the issues before rows of TV cameras, it will still be difficult to get mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions through the narrowly divided Congress and past Bush’s veto pen.
As Gore prepares to testify, industry groups opposed to regulation are lobbying hard behind the scenes.
On Tuesday, coal companies were due to host a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality.
Gore could encounter flak when he appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, whose top Republican, Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, has dismissed man-made climate change as a “hoax” and, like Bush, has said he won’t see Gore’s movie.
Inhofe, who contends that mandatory limits on industrial emissions would severely damage the economy, said that he was prepared to challenge Gore on the science of climate change and the cost.
“If we charged an admission price for this, we could help reduce the national debt,” Boxer quipped.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), another committee member who will question Gore during the three hours set aside for his appearance before the Senate committee, has derided Gore’s movie for spending only five minutes on the economic effects of regulation.
Among the committee members Gore could face are Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the wife of the president he served for eight years, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), his 2000 running mate.
Gore has said he believes President Clinton’s impeachment hurt his 2000 presidential campaign and he passed over Lieberman in the 2004 presidential primaries to support Howard Dean.
Gore also will appear before a joint meeting of House subcommittees, including a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), an auto industry ally who is seen by environmentalists as a potential obstacle to a crackdown on tailpipe emissions.
Dingell, nonetheless, recently sent Gore a note to congratulate him on the Academy Award.
“You have proven,” he wrote, “that one doesn’t need the bully pulpit of politics to reach, move and drive people to act when good ideas and noble purpose are on your side.”