As the House begins serious debate on a climate bill, the biggest sticking point is shaping up to be how much it will cost average Americans.

The Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday started four straight days of hearings on the draft climate bill sponsored by Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The legislation would create a cap-and-trade plan that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050. Waxman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) want the bill passed out of committee by Memorial Day — just five weeks away — and approved by the full House by July.

The EPA estimated on Tuesday that the bill would cost the average U.S. household $98 to $140 a year, or 27 cents to 38 cents a day. But that didn’t stop some Republicans from claiming the bill would wring Americans dry.

The committee’s lead Republican, Joe Barton (R-Texas), wasn’t present for the opening hearing, but he issued an advance copy of his remarks for Wednesday, in which he repeats the (now thoroughly debunked) estimate that a cap-and-trade plan would cost households more than $3,100 per year. He lambasts the Waxman-Markey bill as an “energy tax” and suggests that it would force Americans back to an 1875 standard of living.

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For the most part, Barton’s statement shies away from the outright climate change skepticism he’s voiced at other hearings, focusing instead on the argument that the bill will be too costly.

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Other Republican committee members couldn’t repress their skepticism on Tuesday. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said he believes “the debate on the causes of climate change is still happening.” Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also questioned the “underlying science” of the Waxman-Markey bill. She warned that the pending EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is “like a gun to our heads,” but said the bill being discussed is like “taking it and shooting ourselves in the chest.”

Let’s play ball

Tuesday’s hearing, at which committee members offered opening statements, was the equivalent of the ceremonial opening pitch at a baseball game — all show, no impact. But it indicated that getting the committee to sign off on the bill will be far from easy.

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The real action starts on Wednesday, when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will kick off a parade of high-profile witnesses. Testimony from Al Gore, other environmental leaders, and a passel of corporate bigwigs will follow throughout the week.

Some Republicans on the committee appear willing to participate in shaping the bill rather just demanding that it be scrapped. At the same time, a number of committee Democrats are none too excited about the legislation.

Oregon Republican Greg Walden, speaking at the Tuesday hearing, called for more incentives for forest protections and a broader definition of renewable energy, but said, “I look forward to hearings on the substance of this matter so we can fix it and make it workable.”

Pat Murphy (R-Pa.) also indicated that he believes climate change is a serious issue that should be addressed, and said that improved efficiency and investment in innovation should be priorities. “Where we can find common ground is we want clean air, a clean planet, and clean soil,” said Murphy. “The question is, can we do this in a way that boosts our economy, creates jobs rather than sending them overseas, and where American families find opportunities rather than the loss of jobs.”

Many Democrats and Republicans alike have complained that the 648-page bill lacks key specifics, including the percentage of emission credits that would auctioned off versus given away, and how the proceeds from an auction would be spent. Without those numbers, they argue, there’s no way to know the real economic impact of the bill.

In introducing the legislation several weeks ago, Markey said he and Waxman had left those components open-ended so committee members could weigh in, but that appears to be an unpopular approach.

All 23 Republican members of the panel signed onto a letter to Markey and Waxman on Tuesday that protested the dearth of specifics. “[Y]our discussion draft lacks any decision on permit allocations versus auctions,” they wrote. “The manner in which you will address this issue is the cornerstone of the legislation; without it, the bill is simply not finished and not ripe to be marked up or accurately discussed in the context of a hearing.”

John Dingell (D-Mich.), who chaired the committee until losing the post to Waxman last November, also noted that the question of auction versus allocation might be a “deal breaker” for some on the panel.

More potential deal-breakers

Dingell also raised a concern, shared by others on the panel, that the bill’s renewable electricity standard (RES), calling for 25 percent of power to come from renewable sources by 2025, is too aggressive and “might be more than states can handle.” As a possible solution, he suggested that states be allowed to count nuclear power as renewable.

Southern representatives from both sides of the aisle worried that their states might not have enough renewable resources to meet the RES, including G. K. Butterfiled (D- N.C.), Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Charlie Melancon (D-La), Mike Ross (D-Ark.), and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). “We cannot achieve a 25 percent mandate by 2025,” said Butterfield. “Not only is it impractical, but it is impossible.”

Democrats and Republicans from coal states have concerns about the bill’s plan to phase in strict carbon controls on coal-fired power plants, and they want more funding for carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology.

And while some moderate Democrats on the panel also expressed concern about the potential costs of the bill, they are equally concerned about the prospect of the EPA regulating emissions instead. “If Congress does not act, greenhouse gases could be regulated without the input of legislators who represent the diverse interests of this country,” said Gene Green (D-Texas).

In their letter to Waxman and Markey, the committee’s Republicans also requested an additional five hearings on the bill before members start offering amendments, to delve into topics like nuclear power and market oversight. No word yet on whether the majority will accommodate that request; with the timeline they’ve laid out for getting the bill passed, it would be difficult to schedule.

All of the hearings will be webcast on the Energy and Commerce Committee site, and we’ll have regular updates as the they progress.