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Hollywood-recognized Al Gore returns to Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON &

Capitol Hill is accustomed to famous visitors, but its guest Wednesday is an especially hot ticket: Al Gore, who left Washington as a defeated presidential candidate and returns as the celebrity spokesman on the world's most critical environmental issue.

The former vice president will be the star witness on global warming, a Gore passion that has moved center stage in the Democratic-controlled Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.

Interest is so high in Gore's televised hearings before House and Senate committees that a bigger hearing room has been reserved, extra rooms have been set aside for the anticipated crowd and photo opportunities have been added to the calendars of top Democrats.

When Congress rolls out the green carpet Wednesday, it will complete a dramatic transformation for Gore from the days after he conceded the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election.

Then, Gore's campaign was faulted by fellow Democrats for losing the presidency to Republican George W. Bush. Now, congressional Democrats hope Gore, fresh from his tuxedoed appearance at the Oscars, will electrify their efforts to pass a historic global warming law.

"What can I say? Time is a healing force," said Donna Brazile, a political consultant who managed Gore's 2000 campaign.

Gore, who stars as himself in the Academy Award-winning documentary film "An Inconvenient Truth," agreed to speak at length about climate change because he feels that "there may really be a chance to do something now," said his spokeswoman, Kalee Krieder.

The former Tennessee senator, a 24-year veteran of national politics, has given his now-famous slide show, which depicts the devastating impact of warmer temperatures, to worldwide audiences as diverse as the French National Assembly and a crowd of 10,000 in Boise, Idaho.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, invited Gore to be the sole witness before her panel because he "has awakened the nation to the issue."

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who will head a new House committee on energy independence and global warming, said, "What is truly amazing is the extent to which Gore has led the charge for new global warming policy, even without the auspices of elective office."

But Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., is unimpressed by the new Gore mission. "Those who believe all his garbage are going to be excited to death," he said, "and the rest of us are going to ignore it."

The last former vice president to appear as a witness was Walter F. Mondale, who testified in 1997 about improper fundraising in the 1996 election, said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie.

Citing the improved political climate for global warming legislation, environmentalists hope Gore will provide an additional charge. "We're no longer in the realm of the impossible. We're now in the realm of the possible. Gore is going to help make it more possible," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.

His testimony comes as Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on Tuesday became the latest lawmaker to introduce a global-warming bill and as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards called for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions while campaigning in Iowa.

Waxman has had an easier time finding cosponsors for the measure &

he was up to 127 on Tuesday, almost all Democrats &

for legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Even with Gore spotlighting the issues before rows of TV cameras, it still will be difficult to push mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions through the narrowly divided Congress and past President Bush's veto pen.

As Gore prepares to testify, industry groups opposed to regulation lobby hard behind the scenes. On Tuesday, coal companies were to play host to a $1,000 a head fundraiser for Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality.

Gore could encounter flack when he appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, whose top Republican, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, has dismissed man-made climate change as a "hoax" and, like Bush, has said he won't see Gore's movie.

Inhofe, who contends that mandatory limits on industrial emissions would severely damage the economy, said he is prepared to challenge Gore on the science of climate change and the cost.

"If we charged an admission price for this, we could help reduce the national debt," Boxer quipped.

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