The Obama administration and its Senate allies beat back a months-long drive by congressional Republicans to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases, the heat-trapping emissions that most scientists believe are the main contributor to global climate change.
The Republican effort has focused on limiting the EPA's regulatory powers and its program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, power plants and oil refineries, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and backed by most big-business lobbies, failed Wednesday in a 50-50 vote. Sixty votes were required to overcome the possibility of a filibuster.
The Senate vote effectively dooms companion legislation that is expected to be approved by the Republican-controlled House on Thursday.
"It's clear the Senate rejected efforts to tie the hands of the EPA to limit life-threatening pollution," said Franz Matzner, climate and air legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Every day that goes by, we see that the choice between jobs and healthy lungs is a false choice."
Republicans described greenhouse gas regulation as a threat to the economy.
"EPA regulation of carbon is the worst possible outcome and a disaster in the making," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "The EPA will put burdens on consumers and businesses they cannot handle. It has long been clear to me that elected representatives should write the rules, not the EPA."
In focusing on the EPA, the GOP has been laying the groundwork for what they hope will be an effective 2012 campaign narrative: The agency should be viewed as a job-killing bureaucracy, proof that the Obama administration is indifferent to the needs of business and average Americans.
The Republican charge on the EPA put Democrats on the defensive, leading them to draft three less-Draconian bills to limit the agency's powers. Those bills offered an alternative vote to protect at least a dozen senators who will face tough reelection battles next year. But none got more than 12 votes.
Four Democrats voted for the McConnell-Inhofe bill that would have gutted the EPA's authority, including Sens. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted against it.
"If anyone wants to go home and say, 'I'm responsible for passing the largest tax increase in the history of America by not voting for the McConnell-Inhofe bill,' then that will be a serious problem, not for me but for the senators that vote the wrong way," said Inhofe, who has long challenged the science behind climate change theories.
The EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases stems from a 2007 Supreme Court decision that compelled the agency to determine whether carbon dioxide and other emissions could be considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and if so, to limit them.
It remains to be seen whether the GOP's anti-EPA stances will resonate with voters. Several recent polls have indicated that Americans greatly support the agency's work under the Clean Air Act and do not want Congress meddling in it.
The White House praised the outcome.
"By rejecting efforts to rollback EPA's common-sense steps to safeguard Americans from harmful pollution, the Senate also rejected an approach that would have increased the nation's dependence on oil, contradicted the scientific consensus on global warming, and jeopardized America's ability to lead the world in the clean-energy economy," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
Republicans and major business lobbies lamented the failure of the bills, asserting that their defeat would stunt job growth. But they claimed a minor victory in the 50-50 vote.
"Today, a record number of senators voted to stop the EPA from implementing a job-crushing, back-door cap-and-trade policy," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in an emailed statement. "Despite falling short of the 60 votes needed to stop the administration from moving forward, it is a momentous vote."