The Senate will likely vote on a climate change measure in the next few weeks.
But it won't be on comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has until the week of June 7 to call for a floor vote on her resolution to handcuff U.S. EPA's forthcoming climate regulations.
Many observers see Murkowski's resolution as doomed, in part because it is unlikely to win President Obama's signature if it clears both chambers of Congress or withstands a veto. But even if it fails, observers say the vote could signal whether the Senate is prepared to quash or kick-start the climate bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
"I think everybody's going to be reading the tea leaves on this," said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "I think not only who wins but by how much is important, too."
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) fears that a failed attempt to block EPA could send the wrong signal.
Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and leading skeptic of climate science, has said that he is leaning against calling for a vote on the EPA resolution unless victory is assured. Otherwise, he said, the backers of Senate climate legislation would interpret the votes against the resolution as votes for a cap-and-trade bill.
"If for some reason it didn't win, all of a sudden you'd have Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] and John Kerry saying, 'Everything changes, they've realized the error of their ways,' and interpret that as those votes are for cap and trade," Inhofe said recently. "Which in fact is not true."
Industry attorney Scott Segal said that even if Murkowski gets fewer than the 51 votes needed under Congressional Review Act procedures, a strong showing of support might make supporters of the Kerry-Lieberman bill wonder whether they will be able to get the 60 votes needed for that bill.
"If she gets 48 votes, for example, I think that a lot of political analysts might conclude that it may be difficult to find 60 votes to vote for Kerry-Lieberman," Segal said.
Murkowski already has 41 co-sponsors, including three Democrats: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said if the Senate fails to pass Murkowski's resolution, it would be a signal that Congress takes the issue of climate change seriously. "What I don't think is that it means automatically that any of the particular legislation we have before us gets the same vote," he said.
Murkowski and some of her supporters want to get both Democrats and Republicans on the record endorsing or opposing EPA's regulations, regardless of the outcome of the vote.
"This may be the only vote we get on climate change," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), one of Murkowski's co-sponsors. "This will be an opportunity for people to get on the record, and frankly, for those of us who oppose what they're doing, I think we need a vote on behalf of our constituents to address our opposition to their proceeding down this path."
Murkowski's disapproval resolution seeks to veto EPA's "endangerment finding," a formal determination that allows the agency to plow forward with greenhouse gas rules. The senator is planning to call for a vote either next week or early in the week of June 7, after Congress returns from its weeklong Memorial Day recess, her spokesman Robert Dillon said yesterday.
No filibusters would be possible; the Congressional Review Act allows Murkowski to bring her resolution straight to the floor for an up-or-down vote.
The Obama administration opposes the resolution.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last month said that nullifying the endangerment finding would limit the fuel savings and emission reductions anticipated under EPA's new rule to curb the heat-trapping gases from tailpipes.
Joint EPA and Transportation Department standards finalized earlier this month seek to raise the fuel economy of the nation's passenger fleet and impose the first-ever federal greenhouse gas emissions standards on cars and trucks beginning next year. The combined standards will reduce the affected vehicles' lifetime oil consumption by more than 1.8 billion barrels and will eliminate more than 960 million metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution, Jackson told the Energy and Commerce Committee (Greenwire, April 28).
EPA last week finalized its "tailoring rule" for greenhouse gas emissions. The agency says that rule will allow EPA to begin regulating the largest stationary sources in 2011 and gradually phase in smaller emitters.
The early June deadline crashes up against several other pivotal moments in the legislative debate over the climate bill. That same week -- Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to meet with the six committee leaders with jurisdiction over energy and climate legislation. A week later, Reid plans to dedicate an entire Senate Democratic caucus meeting to the energy issue. Ultimately, Reid is trying to decide by mid-June whether to proceed with floor debate on a comprehensive approach that includes greenhouse gas limits, or pare it back and focus on mandatory nationwide standards on renewable energy and other energy efficiency incentives.
Also early next month, EPA and the Energy Information Administration will be nearing completion of their economic modeling of the Kerry-Lieberman bill. Those two reports will be scrutinized closely by swing-vote senators hesitant to vote on any proposal that can be seen as increasing costs to the public.
Lobbying heats up
As a vote draws near, a host of advocacy groups on both sides have ramped up their lobbying campaigns.
More than 1,800 U.S. scientists signed a letter yesterday to members of Congress urging them to reject Murkowski's measure. The group sent the same letter to lawmakers in March with more than 500 signatures.
"Because the EPA's finding is based on solid science, this legislation also represents a rejection of that science," the letter says. "Instead of standing in the way of climate action, the Senate should move quickly to enact climate and energy legislation that will curb global warming, save consumers money, and create jobs."
Nineteen free market groups also sent a letter to lawmakers yesterday urging them to support Murkowski's resolution.
"If allowed to stand, the endangerment finding will trigger a regulatory cascade, making carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 'subject to regulation' under several Clean Air Act (CAA) programs," says the letter from groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Conservative Union and other groups. "America could end up with a regulatory regime more costly than any climate bill or treaty the Senate has declined to pass or ratify, yet without the people's representatives ever voting on it."
Freedom Action, which was launched in 2009 by members of CEI, also plans to air radio ads this week to support the resolution, citing the recent controversy surrounding e-mails stolen from scientists at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia as a cause for concern about the scientific data used to underpin EPA's climate rules.
Lawmakers wary of EPA rules have also signed on to a number of legislative efforts beyond the Murkowski resolution and the climate bill. However, unlike the Murkowski resolution, none of the other bills introduced are guaranteed a floor vote and would likely fail a 60-vote cloture motion.
Several moderate Democrats last week endorsed a proposal from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that would limit EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources for two years. Rockefeller's co-sponsors are Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
"I'm concerned about having the time to have a legislative decision rather than a regulatory decision," Conrad said this week. "It looks like it's unlikely that climate legislation will move this year, although there's still a chance."
But Rockefeller said that he has not been pushing the bill as actively as he would have liked to. Asked whether he had plans to try to get a markup in the near future, he said, "Not anytime soon because of where we are."
And McCaskill said this week that while she favors Rockefeller's approach to Murkowski's, "I don't know if it's gaining any momentum at all."
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) are considering another approach that would seek to exempt small stationary sources from greenhouse gas regulations while allowing the agency to regulate larger emitters (E&E Daily, May 18).
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), said he would consider such an approach but also expects the Senate to defeat the Murkowski amendment without an alternative. "I don't particularly need a backup," he said.
"I'm against Murkowski, so my view is, she brings up the resolution, we should just defeat it."
Reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.