Time is closing in for the Senate to cast a rare vote, which Republicans will control, that seeks to block the Obama administration from reducing carbon emissions through new tailpipe standards and smokestack limits.
It is a theatrical demand that would make lawmakers take a stand on a politically inflamed climate issue as they approach midterm elections, which could shuffle the balance of power in Washington.
The vote, which Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) says she plans to call by a June 7 deadline, has been anticipated ever since January, when she introduced her measure to temporarily seize control of the Senate schedule and force the chamber to vote on the nation's collective climate conclusions.
Murkowski is wielding her power under a rarely used procedure, setting up what Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, calls a "really strange situation": a vote brought at the sole discretion of the minority party on a measure with slim chance of approval in the House, let alone a signature from the president.
"This is a largely symbolic vote," Ornstein said.
It's rooted in a successful effort by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to give Congress greater oversight of government agencies during the Clinton presidency. The Congressional Review Act allows the Senate to bypass a filibuster and veto an agency action. It has been successfully used once, to overrule a workplace ergonomics standard, and has been attempted only a handful of times.
Still, both Murkowski's supporters and her detractors insist the vote carries weight and, in recent days, have been jockeying loudly to prepare for a vote that could force lawmakers to take positions on the controversial issue of regulating carbon dioxide emissions without an explicit mandate from Congress.
"It is an important vote to see how seriously members are taking climate change," said David Hamilton, the Sierra Club's global warming and energy director, asserting that the optics don't favor Republicans. "More and more, the politics play badly on this."
Murkowski could fail and still win
Climate advocates and hundreds of scientists have mobilized to portray Murkowski's bid as a radical attack on science and a cynical move to gut the only climate option available to the Obama administration.
In the last week, environmentalists have alternately called her resolution the "Dirty Air Act," the "Big Oil Bailout" and the "BP Protection Act," drawing links to the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill. They also note it would undo U.S. EPA's popular tailpipe emissions standards for motor vehicles, set jointly with the Transportation Department this year.
Victory is a reach for Murkowski. She only needs 51 votes, but some conservative senators believe their party, numbering 41 lawmakers, will likely fail against Democratic opposition. That, nevertheless, might be a positive outcome for Republicans, who are looking for new ways to attack Democrats for supporting big government initiatives before midterm elections.
"I don't know if we'll win it. We probably won't," Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said of the disapproval resolution. "But at least it puts everybody on the record where they stand."
If Murkowski brings her bid up and it fails, environmentalists say it could propel the Senate toward a vote this year on the climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Also, the threat of EPA's regulating greenhouse gases is seen by many as a primary reason to pass legislation, which could lower the cost of reducing emissions for businesses and provide rebates to consumers.
"It would be a good thing to take the car out of reverse and put it in forward," said David Doniger, climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We see positive signs in the week since the [Kerry-Lieberman] bill has been introduced."
Murkowski's backers see it differently. A wide array of industry and free market groups and agriculture associations are portraying the effort as the only way to head off disastrous economic consequences from a dizzying set of rules on thousands of businesses across the country. Other senators have introduced less blunt ways to block EPA in a more limited fashion, but they would all have to clear a 60-vote hurdle.
"It seems to me that the whole movement to reduce our emissions peaked last year," said Myron Ebell, with the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute. "The tide is now receding, and things are definitely moving in our direction."
Democrats face climate fallout?
Murkowski has unusual freedom to interrupt Senate proceedings and launch a 10-hour debate that can't be sidelined by parliamentary maneuvers to delay or derail a vote on the disapproval resolution. She can begin the process without warning.
Once the vote is called, lawmakers could be facing new political calculations. Moderate senators from both parties might be forced to take a position on EPA's scientific conclusion that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health and the environment.
It's unclear if that vote, or a less certain one on Kerry-Lieberman, would make some senators vulnerable at the polls in November. One moderate Democrat, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, has already disavowed climate legislation, hoping to insulate herself from growing voter frustration with party leadership.
She is also one of three Democrats to co-sponsor Murkowski's resolution. Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are the others among a total of 41 co-sponsors.
Moderate Republicans' cool response toward the Kerry-Lieberman bill has so far roadblocked attempts to accelerate Senate action on the legislation. Even as Kerry and Lieberman continue to woo centrist Republicans, seeking at least one co-sponsor, the conservative wing of the GOP party is warning of the political damage that would result from a climate vote.
"I think if the Democrats try to bring up some energy legislation that raises the cost of energy, the cost of living, it will play a role" in the elections, said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "And it will be a negative role for the Democrats."
"They're just on a rampage, I think, to take down our economy," he added. "All we can hope to do is minimize the damage until we get some new recruits in November."
There are challenges to those assertions. A study released yesterday by Peterson Institute for International Economics says the bill would add 200,000 jobs annually while driving investments of $4.1 billion a year in nuclear power plants and renewable energy projects.
Yet some Democrats are unsure of the political impacts the bill might have.
"It depends on how it's written, it really does," Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democratic whip, said of the bill in response to a question about incumbent vulnerability. "I have not reached the point yet where I have really taken a close look or analyzed [Kerry-Lieberman]. It was just introduced last week."
No time to hide before elections
The ticking time during which Murkowski can demand the vote follows a slate of primary elections that punctuate the closeness of partisan campaigning set to intoxicate the Capitol this summer. Democratic efforts around health care, economic stimulus programs, and pricing carbon dioxide have been mainstay targets for conservative candidates rallying around the nation's anti-incumbent mood.
"The candidates that prevailed predominantly were anti-cap-and-trade," Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist, said of the winners in recent primaries and a special election in Pennsylvania.
"There's truly a trend here," he added. "These folks [are] all running ... against Washington. It's against the establishment. It's against this town, against this Congress, who's perceived by American voters as not doing anything but spending their kids' inheritance."
Democrat Mark Critz won a special election on Tuesday in Pennsylvania's conservative 12th District after renouncing cap and trade "because it would have a negative impact on jobs and working families."
In doing so, Critz abandoned the position taken by his late boss, Rep. Jack Murtha, who supported carbon-pricing legislation when it passed the House last June in a narrow vote.
Critz's victory, in a race seen as a test of Democratic performance this fall, consoled incumbent Democrats. But it also raises questions about the House's ability to pass a reconciled climate bill later this summer, a vote that would be required in the long-shot event that the Senate approves the Kerry-Lieberman legislation. The House vote on climate legislation last June, in a non-election year, was a close 219-212.
Wrong side of climate
Many critics of climate legislation believe the Senate's appetite for sprawling public programs has withered so close to the elections.
"I think leadership is smart enough not to bring it in an election year," said Bunning of Kentucky. "In other words, I'm saying it isn't in their best interest to have a climate change bill in 2010. If they do a Kerry plus, whatever, carbon tax or cap and trade or whatever it might be, it would be detrimental to Democrats running in November."
Bunning's state was home to a surge of upset voters that propelled eye doctor Rand Paul into the Republican candidacy for Senate on Tuesday. Paul, who embraces the tea party movement, easily beat the GOP's preferred candidate, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, by lambasting both political parties for adhering to big government programs and intrusive regulations.
Those are the type of attacks that opponents of Murkowski's resolution might be faced with.
Still, those accusations ring hollow to some Democrats. The potential for new jobs associated with renewable energy projects and efforts to clamp down on harmful carbon emissions are the right policies for Democrats, says Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.).
"If you're opposing progress on climate change, I wouldn't want to be in that position politically, nor substantively," he said.