The U.S. Senate has postponed action on overhauling climate and energy policy, the chamber’s top Democrat said Thursday, proposing a much scaled-back version in its place.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was “terribly disappointing” to put off action on climate change, but the Democratic Party had to be realistic that conservative political opposition meant “we don’t have the votes” to pass a broad bill.

Lawmakers would instead consider a less ambitious initiative that seeks to learn some lessons from BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and adopt a smaller number of incentives for natural gas and improving energy efficiency.

The BP and energy legislation marked “a step forward, a small step, but very, very important.” The limited bill had wide support and could be considered by the Senate as early as next week.

The postponement of broader climate action further undercuts US President Barack Obama’s pledge to the international community to adopt far-reaching cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions that are blamed for global warming.

Mr. Obama has made climate legislation one of his top domestic priorities and proposed at last year’s Copenhagen climate summit to cut US emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

The delay was condemned by environmental groups. Mr. Reid “today delivered very bad news to the American people,” said David Hawkins of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defence Council. He urged the public to put more pressure on senators during a summer recess.

The White House insisted it has not given up on a more ambitious package of reforms. Carol Browner, the White House’s top climate advisor, said the administration would in the meantime use its existing powers to further limit pollution from U.S. companies.

“The president has made clear ... that we need to have a comprehensive energy policy for this country,” said Browner, who joined a press conference on Capitol Hill with Reid.

Mandatory caps on climate-damaging emissions have been opposed by Republicans as a painful tax on an already-struggling economy. Some Democrats from coal-producing states such as West Virginia have also been wary of the effort.

Democrats and the White House insisted their years-long efforts to pass a climate bill remained alive, but would not offer a new timeline for its passage. A bill before mid-term congressional elections set for November appeared unlikely.

A climate bill would be presented to the Senate “as soon as possible, whenever that might turn out to be,” said Democratic Senator John Kerry, who has led talks on a comprehensive bill.