The 55-43 vote against the measure co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, capped a two-day debate that the two senators described as the opening shot in what they acknowledged will be a lengthy effort to get Congress to address global warming.
Their bill would have required industrial plants — but not motor vehicles — to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 2000 levels by 2010. The Bush administration said the bill would seriously harm the U.S. economy.
"Let's get real here: this is a very minimal proposal that should be a first step," McCain told the Senate, showing pictures of Arctic Sea ice loss and melting at Glacier National Park. "But we have to start somewhere. We will be back, because these pictures will continue to get worse and won't improve until we begin to address this issue."
A senator who is a former astronaut recalled Thursday the "blue-and-white awe" of earth's atmosphere, a view that "made me want to be a better steward of this planet." Sen. Bill Nelson called for an end to "putting our heads in the sand" with current U.S. climate policy.
"The earth from space looks so beautiful, and yet so fragile," said Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on space shuttle Columbia in 1986. "When we face a major change in climate," he said, "it is going to have devastating effects on the ecological balance of the earth."
However, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said there was no need to introduce a "massive new regulatory process" for industrial carbon dioxide.
"It is not a pollutant," he said. "It does not represent a direct threat to public health."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the bill's biggest opponent, said, "Like Kyoto, this is an extreme approach." Inhofe has called global warming a hoax perpetrated by environmentalists on the American public.
Proponents say addressing global warming will in the long run help the economy, but the White House said it strongly opposed the bill because it would require "deep and immediate cuts in fossil fuel use" to meet an "arbitrary" goal, and drive up household energy bills and gas pump prices.
"These increases in energy prices would effectively operate as a tax on American consumers and would have a severe negative impact on job creation," the White House said in a statement.
Sen. Kit Bond told senators the bill would cripple the U.S. economy. "Now is not the time to place more burden on our families and our communities," he said.
McCain, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, forced the debate and vote to the Senate floor by promising he wouldn't block a major energy bill that has been stalled in Congress.
The administration's stance on global warming has irked critics.
In August, the Environmental Protection Agency said it lacked authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. In June, CBS News reported that an EPA report on climate change was gutted to eliminate strong language that "climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment" and was "likely mostly due to human activities."