Getting a climate bill through the Senate with some Republican support might be easier than many observers think, but only if it comes with provisions providing a big boost for nuclear energy.

That was one takeaway from Tuesday’s Senate committee hearing on climate change legislation, the first of a series that the Environment and Public Works Committee plans to host this month on climate policy. Committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has said she intends to have her panel finish work on a climate and energy bill by early August.

The first hearing made it clear that most Democrats on the panel want a bill that’s stronger than the one the House passed last month. And while a few Republicans on the committee indicated that they are willing to actively participate in drafting climate policy, most of the minority party’s questions dwelt on tired climate-change-skeptic talking points.

But for a handful of Republican senators on the committee, the role of nuclear power in the bill will be a significant deal-maker (or breaker, perhaps). Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) both indicated that support for nuclear energy would be major factors. “For the next 20 years if we really want to deal with global warming, we only have one option … to double nuclear power plants,” said Alexander.

Both Alexander and Crapo said nuclear should be included in an renewable energy standard, and should play a significant role in a climate and energy package. [Watch Crapo's questioning of Chu.]

They found a sympathetic ear in the panel of Obama administration officials who testified. Energy Secretary Steven Chu agreed with Alexander that “restarting the nuclear power industry is a very important part of the overall plan” on energy and climate.

“I think nuclear power is going to be an important factor in getting us to a low carbon future,” Chu said, noting that his department has streamlined the process for getting loan guarantees for nuclear. “We want to recapture the lead in industrial nuclear power.”

In a press conference with reporters after the hearing, Chu restated that “nuclear energy has to be a part of the solution,” but would not give a policy prescription. “The Senate is going to have to work through this themselves,” he said.

An Obama administration pep-talk

Chu was joined at the hearing by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who each offered support for the Waxman-Markey bill that the House passed last month. The administration officials put very little emphasis on the House bill’s goal of reducing planet-warming emissions, instead focusing on the economic benefits they believe it will create.

“This is a jobs bill, it’s an energy bill,” Jackson told the panel, though she also noted the need for the United States to take the lead in addressing climate change, and what she characterized as a growing desire among the American public to act on this issue.

“I think the tide is turning against the defenders of the status quo. I think Americans want reform that harnesses the country’s can-do spirit,” she said. “This is what the president wants, this is what I want.”

“To solve these challenges the administration and Congress need to work together,” echoed Chu. “The president and I applaud historic action in the House … I look forward to working with Senate.”

The majority of the witnesses on Tuesday spoke strongly in favor of action. and the dialog between witnesses and Democratic senators was strongly supportive of improving and passing the House bill. Their afternoon panel of the day featured Dow Chemical Vice President of Energy Rich Wells (text of prepared statement); Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman (statement); and David Hawkins, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council (statement).

The only dissenting voice heard by the committee belonged to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a former big-time lobbyist for energy interests.

Senate once, Senate a thousand times

Democrats on Boxer’s committee appear to be united on the need to pass a climate bill, even if Republicans aren’t on board.

There’s even hope that the environment panel will produce a stronger bill than what came out of the House. The House committee that drafted Waxman-Markey is stacked with more representatives from coal and manufacturing states, while the Senate committee is comprised of many coastal-state, liberal senators who have spoken out in favor of climate action.

In addition to Boxer, the panel includes strong climate action proponents like Tom Carper (D-Del.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) Ben Cardin (Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) It’s not entirely clear how Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) would vote on climate legislation. Democrats outnumber Republicans 12 to 7, so they can afford some defections.

Boxer was among the panel’s members who raised questions about the opportunity to improve some components of the bill. Speaking to NRDC’s Hawkins, Boxer asked about how the bill could retain more power for the EPA under the Clean Air Act, which the House bill all but removes. Hawkins suggested that the committee should restore the New Source Review and Performance Review standard provisions of Clean Air Act.

Hawkins also suggested that the Senate bill should create an incentive program that would entice states with tougher emissions reductions goals to adopt federal standards, rather than preempting their plans entirely. There also seemed to be interest among the panel in raising the near-term emissions reductions targets, which in the House bill aim to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020.

Boxer’s committee approved the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act last year, though the bill died on the Senate floor.

The skeptic tank

Led by Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the committee and an outspoken skeptic of climate change science (of “global warming is the greatest hoax perpetrated on mankind” fame), the panel’s Republicans maligned the House’s bill as a tax scheme that would destroy the economy.

Wyoming Republican John Barrasso used his platform to rehash both the thoroughly debunked “EPA suppression story” as well as the utterly false story about the Office of Management and Budget challenging the SBA’s finding that climate change is a threat to human health.

Kit Bond (R-Mo.) used his opening statement to decry the climate bill’s length, without delving much into substance. “My Missouri constituents deserve to know why it takes 1,427 pages to address energy issues,” said Bond, whose staff circulated an incomprehensible graph that they claim illustrates the “bureaucratic nightmare” that would result from the House climate bill.

The GOP’s star witness of the day, Gov. Barbour, was also highly critical of Democrats for even taking up climate and energy legislation. “It’s hard to believe that at a time when growing our economy is our number one priority Congress is considering a bill that would reduce economic growth,” he said.

Barbour, who previously represented energy giant Southern Company as a lobbyist, is considered a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Next up

Like last year, the much bigger challenge will be securing enough votes to pass a climate bill in the full Senate, where debate is expected to begin in the fall.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has set a deadline of Sept. 18 for committees with jurisdiction over the elements of climate and energy legislation to complete their work, and a vote is expected sometime after that. Other committees expected to take up components of a climate and energy bill include Foreign Relations; Finance; Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The Energy and Natural Resources panel approved an energy package last month that covers most of what would fall under its jurisdiction.

Boxer’s EPW will hold several more hearings over the next weeks on the details of climate legislation. On Thursday, the EPW’s Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety will hold a hearing on the Clean Air Act. There is no specific time frame yet for when we will see a bill.