Today’s hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — the first of three days of hearings on the Kerry-Boxer clean energy bill — didn’t contain any big surprises. As Keith Johnson notes, Senators generally played their appointed roles.

There are four stories out of today that seem notable.

1. Republicans are completely out of the game.

This has been true ever since Obama was elected, of course, but today’s hearing threw it in sharp relief. They’re just not involved in the conversation. On the far end you have Inhofe, still shouting at clouds about the science. But Barrasso, Bond, and the rest simply repeat, robotically, absurd claims about the economics of emission reduction that have been utterly debunked — by the EPA, by the CBO, by the EIA, and by the witnesses at today’s hearing. With a few exceptions, every time it was a Republican’s turn to talk, it was as if the whole hearing ground to a halt, taking a break to watch a sideshow before the adults resumed their business.

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Lacking anything of substance, Republicans are resorting to procedural ratf*cks, as usual. They want the EPA to take five weeks to do a full analysis of Kerry-Boxer, even though the agency, like everyone else, knows that the economics are roughly the same as for Waxman-Markey. They’re threatening to boycott the markup to prevent quorum unless the EPA accepts their absurd demands. They all left today before the four cabinet secretaries were done testifying, just to be, you know, deliberately rude. Expect these adolescent tantrums to ramp up over coming months.

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Conservative Democrats (and a few Rs like Voinovich) are at least grappling with the substance of the bill. But Republicans on the committee, for the most part, are engaged in increasingly irrelevant theater.

2. Baucus is a problem.

Here’s what Baucus had to say at the hearing today:

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I have some concerns about the overall direction of the bill before us today, and whether it will lead us closer to or further away from passing climate change legislation. For example, I have serious reservations with the depth of the mid-term reduction target in the bill and the lack of preemption of the Clean Air Act’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2020 target of 20% reductions from 2005 levels is, as Sen. Merkley (D-Ore) pointed out later, easily achievable. It could be hit with efficiency alone, at a profit. It could be hit with natural gas switching alone. We’ll get a quarter of the way there just via the recession! With the suite of tools available, it will be a cakewalk. The only way you could look at that target and find it impossible is if you think carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the only technology capable of producing reductions. That certainly won’t be ready by 2020! But that’s an absurd perspective, one shared mainly by Republicans like Voinovich and … Max Baucus.

Baucus phrases his reservations in the language of concern trolling — he’s just worried about getting the votes, you know. But even if bending on those two items will ultimately be necessary, why on earth would you broadcast your willingness to do so before negotiations even begin? Can we look forward to another months-long, futile quest for bipartisan support from Baucus? Is he going to weaken and slow-walk this bill like he did with health care reform?

See Elana Schor and Greenwire for more on this.

As to the EPA thing:

3. EPA authority emerges as central battle.

Many progressive groups like MoveOn are drawing their red line here: EPA authority under the Clean Air Act must be preserved in the bill. (It is in Kerry-Boxer; it wasn’t in Waxman-Markey.). But several Senators, including Baucus and Specter, openly discussed it as something that will have to be given up to gain enough votes for passage.

It also has its champions in the Senate, including Gillibrand and Whitehouse. Speaking of which, check out Whitehouse’s righteous pro-CAA, anti-coal remarks (taken from this great post by Ben Wessel):

Expect this to become an increasingly heated fight. It was certainly good to see Lisa Jackson point out that even with legislation there are still “common sense” ways to use the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions.

4. The administration steps up

Alongside the hearing today, where four cabinet secretaries testified, the Obama administration is ramping up its general involvement on this issue. Today saw the announcement of $3.4 billion in funding for smart grid initiatives; Biden announced the reopening of a shuttered GM plant to make hybrids; Obama spoke at a new solar plant in Florida, hyping clean energy and federal legislation; and a New York Times headline blared: Administration Steps Up Efforts on Climate Bill.

Everyone has been saying for months that the fight will succeed or fail based on Obama’s investment. It looks like the White House is responding.

Altogether, it is a good day for the forces of climate sanity. The jobs and economics messages were front and center, and wavering conservative Dems were grappling with the legislation in a way that showed they’re taking the possibility of passage seriously.

The hearings tomorrow and the next day will last allll day and get into some serious weeds. Watch Grist’s Kerry-Boxer page for updates.