WASHINGTON — Call it empty-table diplomacy — with a nuclear option.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) ended the morning today shuffling papers in silence at the head of an empty table, as Republican senators boycotted Day 1 of her panel’s markup of historic climate legislation.
“This is an opportunity. I ask my colleagues to show up. We’re going to be extremely patient. We’re going to be here. We’ll take some time to wait for our friends,” said Chairwoman Boxer, at the end of the aborted morning session of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
But if Republicans prolong the boycott, she hinted that Democrats, with a five-seat majority on the panel, are prepared to go on without them. “We’re not going to be deterred. We’ll do our work. It’s our job. We’re going to follow the committee rules to the letter,” she said.
That rule allows the committee chairman to bypass the requirement that at least two members of the minority are needed to constitute a quorum. Republicans call it a “nuclear option” that will undermine committee traditions and put a bipartisan bill out of reach.
Partisan fireworks are exactly what Democratic leaders had hoped to avoid.
Last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina became the first Republican to endorse the Senate version of the climate bill. On Wednesday, he and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts expect to meet with Obama administration officials to work out compromises in the Kerry-Boxer climate bill to expand bipartisan support.
Republicans are calling for a “full economic analysis” of the Kerry-Boxer bill, including the impact on jobs, consumers, ratepayers, families, and small businesses in various parts of the country.
“This bill will have an unprecedented impact on our national security, economy, environmental and energy needs. For that reason, members should have a full understanding of what this means for their states and constituents,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, who read a statement outlining GOP reasons for the boycott at the top of today’s markup and then left.
In a speech to a joint session of Congress this morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Congress that there was “no time to lose” in the fight against global warming. “We need an agreement at the climate conference in December in Copenhagen,” she said. “That requires the readiness of all countries to accept binding international commitments.”
“I’m confident that bipartisan support will win the day,” said freshman Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, after the speech. “Senators who believe that climate change is real will not abandon the debate for too long. The stakes are too high,” he added.
So far, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has produced a 38-page “discussion document” of Kerry-Boxer that Republicans say doesn’t resolve their concerns.
“Madam Chairman, Ohio can’t afford to lose any more jobs. So for the sake of workers in my state and elsewhere whose jobs are hanging in the balance, slow down, take a deep breath, let EPA do what it needs to do, and let’s come back in four to five weeks and have a markup,” Senator Voinovich said. “Otherwise, you will do great damage to the traditions of this committee and make it harder to reach a bipartisan compromise on climate change legislation.”
Boxer countered: “EPA has made it clear they stand behind the economic analysis and that it is more analysis than is typically provided before a markup.”
At the chair’s request, EPA officials were to appear Tuesday afternoon for a question and answer session with panel members on the bill. Republican senators say they expect to boycott this briefing, too.
“We don’t want another briefing. We want the analysis,” says a GOP aide.