WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack is leading a Republican effort in the House to block funding for a climate change initiative that provides money to education programs around the nation, including at Carleton College in Northfield and the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul.

Cravaack's proposal, offered as an amendment to an annual spending bill, made the first-term Minnesota member of Congress the focus of a legislative duel Wednesday over climate change, with Democrats and environmentalists rallying against the GOP measure.

His provision passed the House late Wednesday on a 238-188 vote.

Cravaack's amendment to the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill would eliminate $10 million in annual funding made nationwide through the National Science Foundation's Climate Change education program.

Cravaack said the money "duplicates the already inherent ability of the [NSF] to fund worthy proposals through its rigorous, peer-reviewed process."

He cited Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports showing a range of overlapping programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education that are funded by 13 government agencies.

"A redundant global warming program can hardly be justified," he said. 

Carleton has received nearly $255,000 through the program since 2010. The Como Zoo is part of a zoo educational network on national climate literacy that has received $1.2 million.

Democrats, Cravaack spar

House Democratic leaders denounced the measure as part of a broader effort to cast doubt on climate change. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that the climate is changing rapidly because of greenhouse gases, but it remains a contentious political issue.

"Rather than taking action to reduce emissions and avoid the worse impacts of climate change, House Republicans have opted to deny the basic science," Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote in a letter to colleagues. "Rep. Chip Cravaack is continuing this head-in-the-sand approach."

Cravaack said his amendment is about duplication, not climate change: "However you feel about global warming -- that is not the debate today. This amendment addresses a duplicative program costing us money we simply do not have."

Cravaack's office did not respond to a request for his position on global warming. Last year he voted for a measure to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases to address climate change, saying that power should be reserved to Congress.

Environmentalists questioned why his push to end duplication is aimed directly at climate change education programs. "There is very little investment in climate change education," said Patrick Fitzgerald, director of education advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation. Fitzgerald argued that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programs cited by Cravaack are not the same as climate change education programs. "He's comparing apples to oranges," Fitzgerald said.

Early election-year battle

The skirmish over the amendment represents one of the first big spending battles of an election-year Congress, many of them echoing the themes of the year's presidential race.

President Obama already has threatened to veto the $51.1 billion spending bill over proposed GOP spending cuts to an array of programs in the Commerce and Justice departments, as well as in other agencies.

Cravaack's amendment would eliminate funding for a national initiative to reach more than 20 million zoo visitors each year with information about climate change. The Como Zoo took part in a planning survey for the project, which is being led by the Chicago-based Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network.

Researchers with the group released a report in April showing that zoo and aquarium visitors are more concerned about climate change than the general public. In announcing the report, Como Zoo Director Michelle Furrer said visitors "are clearly concerned about climate change, and these survey findings give us the opportunity to help visitors adopt greener lifestyles and reduce their environmental footprint."

The grant at Carleton is part of an ongoing nationwide initiative to collect peer-reviewed teaching materials on climate literacy and energy awareness. "What would be lost are additions that come from new projects," said Cathy Manduca, director of Carleton's Science and Education Resource Center. "In climate science, it's important to have new things because climate science itself is evolving very fast."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.