AN ENCOURAGING FIRST STEP…. Generally, when a House committee approves a bill, it’s not an especially important development. But the Waxman-Markey bill isn’t just another piece of legislation, global warming isn’t just another policy challenge, and yesterday wasn’t just another committee vote.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, splitting largely along party lines, approved on Thursday the most ambitious energy and global warming legislation ever debated in Congress. […]

Mr. Obama did not play a major public role in the committee’s work, but intervened quietly on several occasions, calling nervous conservative Democrats to assure them that a vote for the bill would not hurt them politically. Two weeks ago, he gathered all of the panel’s Democrats at the White House to urge them to set aside their differences to produce a bill that met his goals of energy conservation and global warming abatement.

The measure approved by the House committee runs more than 930 pages. It establishes a cap-and-trade program to control climate-altering emissions; dictates an increase in the use of renewable energy sources; and sets new efficiency standards for buildings, lighting and industrial facilities. It calls for a 17 percent reduction in emissions of heat-trapping gases from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.

It was the object of one of the biggest lobbying campaigns of any piece of environmental legislation, with millions of dollars spent on both sides in the months leading up to Thursday’s vote. Lawmakers heard from former Vice President Al Gore, local utility companies, hunters and fishermen, national environmental groups, agricultural interests and the coal, oil and natural gas industries.

The final committee vote was 33 to 25, with three Blue Dogs joining the Republicans in opposition, and one GOP lawmaker (California Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack) joining Dems in support. Waxman, the committee chairman, had vowed to get the bill through committee by Thursday, and though few thought it would happen, he got it done.

This was, of course, the first test. Legislative choke-points abound, and the bill still has a ways to go. In the House, Waxman-Markey will need approval from committees on Ways and Means, Transportation, Natural Resources, and perhaps most important, Agriculture. (Democrats on the Ag Committee have vowed to block the bill unless it exempts ethanol from EPA regulation.) Senate passage will be even more difficult, since Republicans will use the same obstructionist tactics they always use, and Blue Dogs like Evan Bayh are bound to break party ranks.

That said, yesterday was a good start.

Post Script: Remember the speed-reader I mentioned the other day? It turns out, Texas Rep. Joe Barton (R) backed off his threats to delay the bill, but he, like everyone else, was nevertheless curious to see what the speed-reader sounded like reading the bill. The result was highly entertaining.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.