Waving a handful of papers in the air at a recent Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, a Republican senator told the head of U.S. EPA that the nine-page memo he brandished proves her agency made political, not scientific, findings on possible regulations of carbon dioxide emissions.
"This is a smoking gun," the senator declared.
Such moments have become commonplace whenever EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson appears before the EPW Committee. But it is not Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the former committee chairman and leading congressional skeptic on the science of global warming, asking the questions.
Instead, it is Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who in his third year on Capitol Hill has made a name for himself fighting Jackson and other top Obama administration officials over the White House environmental policy.
Just last week, as the EPW panel dove into hearings on the climate bill, Barrasso grilled Jackson on allegations that the agency attempted to silence the views of EPA employees who warned against finalizing the agency's proposed finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare.
"A culture of intimidation has no justification in any administration," Barrasso told Jackson. Despite promises that the administration would hold itself to a standard of openness and transparency, Barrasso said, "The administration has so far failed to make the grade."
Jackson and other administration officials have repeatedly dismissed these claims, saying that the agency considered a broad range of opinions and maintained an open and transparent process when crafting the endangerment finding.
Earlier this year Barrasso used his ability to delay nominations to temporarily block Obama's nominee to lead EPA's air office over concerns about the administration's climate policies. He has criticized the administration for using the threat of the endangerment finding as a cudgel used to spur support for more flexible legislative efforts.
"There is an effort to force Congress to pass something under threat of action by the Environmental Protection Agency," Barrasso said in an interview. "And I think that should be a decision for Congress to make, not for the Environmental Protection Agency. If you take a look at who, when they wrote that initial bill, there was no conception that something like that would be used to regulate carbon."
Barrasso has also repeatedly sought to clarify the role that Carol Browner, Obama's top climate and energy adviser is playing in the administration's environmental policies. He placed a procedural "hold" on Jackson's nomination in January over questions about Browner (E&E Daily, Jan. 22). Yesterday, he grilled Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about Browner's role in DOT policy (see related story).
'Not the mushy middle'
Barrasso in many ways is following in Inhofe's footsteps. One of the most prominent climate change skeptics, Inhofe once called global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
"Legislatively we're on the same page," Barrasso said of Inhofe. The two will be "working together to make sure the Senate doesn't pass a bill that to me is going to cripple our economy and raise taxes on American families," he said.
But unlike Inhofe, who has focused largely on disputing the science behind climate change, Barrasso has focused much of his attention on the possible economic impacts of limiting carbon emissions. He has warned that EPA's endangerment finding would result in widespread litigation aimed at forcing EPA to regulate entities like farms, hospitals and nursing homes, and could hurt businesses and consumers. "The economic consequences of this ticking time bomb will be devastating," he said.
The Republican leadership has not asked Barrasso to be a point person during the upcoming debate, he said. "But they know what my positions are on this, and I've spoken up about it in our caucus meetings, as has Senator Inhofe."
For his part, Inhofe said he has the highest regard for Barrasso, that they talk every day and will coordinate on strategy once they know what the Senate climate bill will be, as passed by committee. "I like people who are outspoken, even people on the other side, instead of the 'mushy middle' as I call it," Inhofe said. "He is certainly not the mushy middle. He has strong opinions and he takes his job seriously and voices those opinions, and I think he's going to have a major role."
Inhofe noted a few other Republican senators have been active on the issue, including Kit Bond of Missouri and Mike Crapo of Idaho. "But for so many years it was kind of lonely out there," Inhofe added. "So it's kind of nice to have some new partners. ... We're getting a lot more people willing to come out and be aggressive in issues that are politically unpopular."
Marc Morano, who worked as Inhofe's communications director at the EPW Committee until earlier this year, said he anticipates Inhofe and Barrasso delivering a "one-two punch" to knock down a Senate climate bill.
"It's a perfect blend of Inhofe on the science and the economics with Senator Barrasso as well focusing on the science and the economics and reaching out as well doing more coalition building," said Morano, who is now executive director of Climate Depot, a media outlet aimed at giving a voice to climate change skeptics.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), an EPW Committee member, predicted that Barrasso will play a "very active role" in the climate change debate.
"I think Senator Barrasso clearly not only understands the issue, has taken the time to try to read up on it," Cardin said. "He's personally visited a lot of places. He's made this a priority. ... We may not agree with him on a particular topic, but he is well prepared and he certainly represents his view very effectively."
EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was not as kind. By teaming up with Inhofe and other GOP critics of the administration's climate policies, "He has positioned himself with the very radical deniers," Boxer said.
Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said Barrasso is "clearly seeking to be a high profile player, though unfortunately in a negative sense."
Barrasso took a long and circuitous path to reach his current role as a player on climate issues. He traces his interest in politics to his father, also named John. During the Great Depression, the elder Barrasso quit school in the 9th grade to become a cement finisher and help support the family.
Born in Pennsylvania, the future senator likewise spent his high school and college summers pushing wheelbarrows of wet cement.
"From the time I was a little kid he'd always say, 'John you should thank God every day you live in America. You don't know how fortunate you are,'" Barrasso recalls.
His dad took him to Washington at age 8 to see the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. As a high school senior, Barrasso attended the Presidential Classroom civics program on Capitol Hill. He returned to Washington to earn an doctor of medicine degree from Georgetown University in 1978.
When Barrasso was in college and medical school, he said, the "best science at the time said that the Ice Age is coming." He referred to articles from Newsweek, the New York Times and Time magazine from 1974 and 1975 about the "global cooling" phenomenon. One of the articles said a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable.
"It's fascinating to see the changes in the science," Barrasso said. "Not that long ago, all the science was pointing in another direction. So all I'm saying is, how much of the wealth of this nation are we going to put at risk for something that may be poorly spent money?"
Asked whether he thinks humans are contributing to global warming, Barrasso said, "Humans are contributing to additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."
After he finished his residency, Barrasso and his then-wife moved to Wyoming, which he had visited during college, and had two children. Working as an orthopedic surgeon required much more than answering patients' medical questions, he said.
"You see kind of the human condition in its most raw," he said. "You see people who are scared, you see people who are hopeful, you see people who have been victims of violence. You see the impact on a family of when a child is ill and mom or dad, if they're both working what impact that is. You see how people my age ... [are] dealing with an older parent. You see it all."
For more than two decades, Barrasso made statewide television and radio reports giving health tips and worked at health fairs. He chaired the United Way in Natrona County and hosted the state broadcast of the Jerry Lewis fundraising telethon each year.
Yesterday, Barrasso and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Senate's only doctors, launched "The Senate Doctors Show," a live online show to discuss health care policy and answer questions about congressional proposals.
"I've just always been interested in trying to find additional ways to help people," he said. "In my medical office I could help an individual person. ... And then when a state Senate seat opened up, you know, decided to run for that and found out I could do even more to help folks in the state Senate using my medical background."
In 2003, he was elected to the Wyoming Legislature, where he served two terms. In 1996 he ran for the U.S. Senate, but after losing to Mike Enzi in the primary, agreed to become Enzi's finance chairman. When Wyoming's other senator, the popular Republican Craig Thomas, died of leukemia in June 2007, it opened the floodgate for ambitious Republicans in the state. Thirty-one people applied for the seat. After a series of speeches and forums, the state party committee whittled the number to 10, then to five, and finally to three.
Per state law, which requires the governor to appoint a senator from the same party as the one who vacated the seat, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal choose Barrasso from the trio. When being sworn in to the Senate, Barrasso carried in his pocket his father's dog tags from World War II, when he had fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
Barrasso won a special election last November to serve through 2012, the remainder of Thomas' term. Barrasso and his first wife had divorced, and after becoming senator he married his current wife, Bobbi Brown.
Wyoming, a coal state
Wyoming, which produces more coal than any other state, has had a senator on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee since the late 19th century, including Thomas. But Barrasso's first thought upon becoming senator was health care.
When the surgeon arrived on Capitol Hill, he approached Enzi -- who has more of an energy background, but is the top Republican on the Health panel -- and proposed a switch. "He was the mayor of Gillette, the coal capital of the world, and he worked for an energy company," Barrasso said. "And I practiced medicine for 24 years."
But Enzi noted that to take the energy spot he would have to give up his seniority on the health committee. "We knew we needed to keep the energy committee for Wyoming and didn't want to give up his leadership on the health committee, so we talk a lot both about health and about energy. So it's in one way we have the best of both worlds. In a perfect world, you might swap it out."
When it comes to climate change, Barrasso said he is simply representing the widely held views of his constituents. Last week, Freudenthal announced his opposition to the House bill, H.R. 2454.
"People in Wyoming continue to tell me this whole thing is overexaggerated," he said. "People in Wyoming are focused on this. ... They get that we need all the energy, we need the green jobs, but we also need the red, white and blue jobs, we need it all."
He later added: "That's my big concern with when the president says he wants to make green jobs and renewable energy the cheapest form of energy, he doesn't want to do it by lowering the price of renewable energy, he wants to do it by taxing and raising the prices of the other sources of energy."
Barrasso also noted the bill would not touch emissions from China, India and Brazil. "For us in America to handcuff ourselves, while other nations, especially those that are doing it the most aren't doing a thing to help, I don't think it makes sense."
Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, praised Barrasso's work as a senator and his stance on climate change. "He's very thoughtful, very professional and he's very well prepared the issues with which he becomes involved," Loomis said. "I have a great deal of respect for him. He's been very supportive of the major issues and on climate change, mining law."
Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, the second-ranking Republican on the EPW Committee, noted that many senators' opinions on the climate change issue are determined along regional lines. "As many of these environmental things, it's not really the Republican or Democrat, but basically has a lot to do with the regions of the country," he said.
"Basically we're about eight different countries when it comes to providing energy," Voinovich added.