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Senators look to revive climate debate in U.S. Congress

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, speaks during the nomination hearing fo
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, speaks during the nomination hearing fo

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two of the U.S. Senate's biggest environmental boosters have launched a drive to revive the issue of climate change in Congress and defend President Barack Obama's climate action plan against opposition from Republicans.

Democratic senators Barbara Boxer of California and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told reporters on Thursday they would launch a new climate action task force with more than a dozen members and the full support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The task force is likely to introduce a number of small-scale bills and will push for increased discussion on climate topics in the full Senate.

The task force will also consult with officials at the White House, including John Podesta, the president's newly appointed adviser specializing in energy and environmental matters.

"The purpose is to use the bully pulpit of our Senate offices to achieve that wakeup call," Boxer told reporters during a meeting in her office. "We believe that climate change is a catastrophe that's unfolding before our eyes and we want Congress to take off the blindfolds."

In recent years Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, spearheaded a few failed attempts to pass legislation that would put a price on carbon emissions by establishing an economy-wide cap-and-trade system.

While she and Whitehouse said that is still at the top of their wish list, they know they do not have the votes to achieve that goal in a bitterly divided Congress.

Among the smaller-scale bills being mulled is one to protect the government's renewable fuel standard proposal, and one to improve energy efficiency in federal buildings, she said.

Although the task force, whose members will be announced at an event on Tuesday, will "be on the offensive," Boxer said they will also work to protect federal and state initiatives already in place that are aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

"We are defending against legislative riders that would roll back environmental laws, including the president's climate initiative," Boxer said, referring to the White House plan to tackle climate change using executive authority.

Whitehouse, who has delivered a weekly address on climate change on the Senate floor for more than a year, said the timing is right for the task force, noting a shift in public support and backing of his party's leadership.

"There is a lot we can do on climate and a lot of room for optimism on getting things done now that the American public is very clearly with us," Whitehouse said.

He pointed to recent polling by the independent Pew Research Center that shows that 71 percent of Americans have said they've seen the effects of global warming, as well as a survey by the League of Conservation Voters that found that 53 percent of Republicans under the age of 35 describe those skeptical of climate change "ignorant," "out of touch" or "crazy."

Whitehouse said having the support of Reid would give the task force the political backing to play a more visible role in the Senate. "A lot of the things we are doing involve getting his blessing, and we have that," Whitehouse said.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, editing by Ros Krasny and Cynthia Osterman)

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