Debate on the House climate bill got heated on Friday as Al Gore and Newt Gingrich — two lightning-rod political figures — testified before the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Gingrich came crying foul that Congress is poised to begin regulating Jacuzzis, while Gore – you guessed it! –testified to the urgent need to pass an aggressive bill to address the climate crisis.

Veeping it real

John Warner and Al Gore.Former Sen. John Warner and former veep Al Gore.Gore told the committee that they are discussing “one of the most important pieces of legislation ever introduced in Congress.”

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“I believe this legislation has the moral significance equivalent to that of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the Marshall Plan of the late 1940s,” said Gore, before delving into some of the current and projected impacts of a warmer planet. His testimony overall focused on the ways that a climate bill could spur new industry and create a more stable economy, in addition to protecting life on the planet from the effects of climate change.

“The U.S. needs to act “not next year, this year,” he said. “Each day we continue on our current path, America loses more of its competitive edge. And each day we wait, we increase the risk that we will leave our children and grandchildren an irreparably damaged planet.”

Former Republican Sen. John Warner (R), who last year cosponsored the Senate’s Climate Security Act, appeared beside Gore to make the point that climate change is a nonpartisan issue

“This particular moment in our history is critical. Future generations will look back at this day in the future, and see what we did, and maybe what we didn’t do,” said Warner. “There is a desire among broad cross sections of the American people to do something. They want it done.”

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He also stressed the need to act as soon as possible. “It’s only going to get tougher and more complicated for future Congresses,” said Warner.

But the committee’s Republican members paid little heed to Warner’s words and spent the bulk of the day questioning whether humans are causing warming, and maligning the climate bill as an energy tax. (One member even questioned whether Gore was trying to profit from climate policy.)

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), one of the committee’s resident skeptics, dismissed Gore’s warnings as “alarmist predictions.” “Some of the phenomena that you indicate are obviously occurring … but to lay that at the feet of global warming is not in line with the science,” said Barton.

Gore, undeterred, used this as an opportunity to highlight the article on the front page of Friday’s New York Times that explains how a fossil-fuel industry group hid the findings of its own scientists, who determined that climate change was in fact happening.

“With all due respect, I believe you’ve relied on sources whom you’ve trusted who have given you bad information,” Gore told Barton. “The largest corporate carbon polluters in America, 14 years ago, asked their own people to conduct a review of all of this science. And their own people told them, ‘What the international scientific community is saying is correct, there is no legitimate basis for denying it.’ Then, these large polluters committed a massive fraud — far larger than Bernie Madoff’s fraud.”

“They are the Bernie Madoffs of global warming,” Gore continued. “They ordered the censoring and removal of the scientific review that they themselves conducted, and like Bernie Madoff, they lied to the people who trusted them in order to make money. These corporations ought to apologize to the American people for conducting a massive fraud for the last 14 years.”

Other Republicans offered similar skeptical comments, including Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas. “No one who has come before this committee, from a scientific basis, has shown us the smoking gun that mankind is causing this to happen,” claimed Burgess. “Anything can be proven if you’re willing to take the time with the numbers.”

Later in his remarks, Gore challenged the skeptics. “Not too long from now, the next generation is going to look back at the early part of this century and ask one of two questions. Either they’ll ask, ‘What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear the scientists? Why did you prefer to listen to some outlier quack that got money from these carbon polluters that were engaged in a massive fraud? Why didn’t you listen to the global scientific community?” said Gore.

“Or they’ll ask a second question, the one I want them to ask: ‘How did you find the moral courage to look past the short-term problems of the day and rise to solve a problem that some said was inconvenient to address?'”

Nothing Newt under the sun

The day’s second star witness, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, didn’t express outright skepticism that climate change is caused by humans, but did suggest that it might not be as bad as some have predicted — and that even if it were, the government shouldn’t be trusted to do anything about it.

“Make no mistake about it: This bill amounts to a one to two trillion dollar energy tax levied on a struggling economy, which is destructive and wrong,” said Gingrich. “An energy tax punishes senior citizens. It punishes rural Americans. If you use electricity, it punishes you; if you use heating oil, it punishes you; if you use gasoline, it punishes you. This bill will increase your cost of living and it could kill your job.”

(If you’re experiencing some cognitive dissonance, yes, this is the same Newt Gingrich who last year sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi and claimed, “Our country must take action to address climate change.” That was before he went on to do that whole “Drill here, drill now, pay less” thing.)

Gingrich spent much of his testimony decrying the bill, claiming it would turn the energy secretary into a “Jacuzzi czar” because it directs the Department of Energy to set higher energy-efficiency standards for products like hot tubs. “The difference between being liberal and conservative in America … is whether you think consumers should decide the kind of Jacuzzi they should have rather than the government,” he said.

He criticized the “federal bureaucracy” for doing a poor job of setting appliance standards in the past, and for failing to follow through on energy policy — though the failures he cited were all from the Bush era.

Gingrich went on to say that he thinks climate change is happening, but he accused Gore of making “deeply misleading assertions” and challenged figures on future sea-level rise and decline of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

He also argued for more studies of the problem. “On the facts of climate change, we need a national inquiry,” said Gingrich. “I want to invite Vice President Al Gore to participate in a nonpartisan inquiry, and I’d love to have this committee agree to help sponsor it, so that every high school and college campus this coming October could have a discussion about the facts.”

“There is a sufficient debate over facts … that would be very useful to have,” he continued. “I think there is no evidence we need to rush to a massive energy tax increase.”

What, then, did Gingrich propose? Among “reasonable, affordable steps that might work,” he listed increased domestic oil and gas drilling, expanded use of ethanol and nuclear energy, and development of “clean coal” technologies.

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chair and co-author of the climate bill, clearly grew annoyed with Gingrich. “When the American people hear statements that you have made, they get scared. Which is exactly what I think is intended,” said Waxman. “I believe that you are trying to give us a false choice. Our economic future and clean energy are inextricably intertwined. The economy that will grow the fastest in this century will be the one that makes the greatest investment in new energy technologies.”

“Your ideas are not bold,” he continued. “They’re a repeat of the old scare tactics.”

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) quoted Gingrich in a 2007 Frontline interview in which he said that cap-and-trade was something he “would strongly support.”

“I think many people will ask what happened to the old Newt Gingrich,” said Inslee. “We expected an optimist, someone who believes in the creative power of the American economy, but we’ve had a sudden attack of pessimism that we can’t solve this problem.”

Now what?

After three full days of testimony from 69 different witnesses, committee leaders must now get down to the tough work of hammering out the details of the bill, so the full committee can begin offering and voting on amendments to it — a process likely to start next week.

In order to pass the bill out of the committee, the authors will have to sate the committee’s moderates, who have circulated a lengthy list of suggested changes. They want a reduction of the renewable electricity standard, free giveaway of many carbon credits to electric utilities, and lower standards for new coal-fired power plants. Their list also suggests lowering the bill’s overall goal for reducing emissions by 2020, from 20 percent to 6 percent.

These proposals to make the legislation less stringent will likely not sit will with Waxman, bill coauthor Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and the committee’s other more liberal members. But Waxman indicated that some deal-making will need to happen to get a bill passed.

“To succeed, we’re going to have to bridge interests between environmentalists and industries, Democrats and Republicans,” Waxman said during Friday’s hearing.