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WASHINGTON (AP) – Vermont Sen. James Jeffords named global warming as his first priority when he formally became chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday.

The newly independent lawmaker whose defection from the Republican Party tipped the Senate to Democratic control last month promised hearings by early August on his proposed Clean Energy Act.

“Being a rock star isn’t easy,” he joked of all the attention he’s been receiving. “It won’t last long.”

Jeffords’ bill is an effort to force coal-fired electrical power plants to clean up or shut down by mandating strict carbon dioxide emission standards and creating incentives for the use of clean, alternative power.

“There’s a real perception among all the people of this world that we need to do something about the pollution or else this world is going to change rapidly,” he said. “The urgency is pretty evident now.”

Jeffords said he also hopes to nudge the Bush administration back toward the negotiating table on a 1997 climate treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan – something British Ambassador Christopher Meyer also urged the senator to do at a meeting Tuesday.

“I assured him I was going to do my best to make sure we were able to work with the European Community in handling these problems,” said Jeffords.

In March, President Bush backed out of the treaty, which had been supported but not approved by European allies, and abandoned his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The administration now says it is focusing on largely voluntary measures.

Jeffords also met Tuesday with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman.

Jeffords is the first chairman of a standing Senate committee in 68 years who is not a member of a major political party. The last one was Henrik Shipstead, Farmer-Labor Party chairman of the Committee on Printing from 1928 to 1933.

Leadership of the committee passed to Jeffords from neighboring New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who remains the committee’s ranking Republican. “They won’t be discouraged by it, I can assure you,” Jeffords said of Vermont’s neighbors.

Shortly before Bush released his energy plan, Jeffords joined Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in sponsoring a bill to promote cleaner vehicles and reduce fuel consumption through tax credits that are similar to Bush’s tax incentives.

Jeffords’ push for carbon dioxide emission controls could gain some bipartisan support.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats alike peppered an official representing the Commerce Department with questions after he testified that emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols from human activities continue to heat the atmosphere in ways expected to affect the climate.

“It is important we fully explore all policy options including mandatory emissions reductions,” said former presidential contender Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.


Senate Environment and Public Works Committee:

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