In a vote that could be a precursor to a summer debate on climate and energy legislation, the Senate is set to vote Thursday on whether to unravel U.S. EPA's authority to issue climate rules.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is planning to call for a vote on a resolution to upend EPA's "endangerment" finding for greenhouse gases, a determination that paves the way for agency climate rules. Murkowski last month reached an agreement with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to call for the June 10 vote.
The vote comes as EPA prepares to start regulating greenhouse gases from automobiles and industrial facilities next year. Many lawmakers and industries see Murkowski's resolution as their best chance of blocking those Clean Air Act rules, which they say will be unwieldy and too expensive.
Murkowski is attempting to undo the endangerment finding under the Congressional Review Act, which would require 51 votes to clear the chamber. Up to seven hours of debate will precede the vote; no filibusters or amendments would be possible.
Even if Murkowski's measure clears the Senate, supporters concede that it faces an uphill climb in the House and faces a likely veto from President Obama. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson opposes the measure.
The only time the Congressional Review Act has been used to successfully upend a federal rule was in 2001, when both Republican-controlled chambers overturned Clinton administration standards on workplace ergonomics. President George W. Bush signed the bill.
Still, Senate passage of the resolution would send a powerful political signal as the Obama administration readies climate rules and Senate Democrats prepare to launch a full-court press on climate and energy legislation.
Murkowski has 41 co-sponsors, including three Democrats: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. But even if she wins the votes of the three Republicans who are not already co-sponsoring the bill -- Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts -- Murkowski would need the support of at least seven more Democrats or independents.
Murkowski has said she will call for a vote whether or not she has enough supporters to clear the chamber. She refused to divulge her vote count last month, calling it "top secret."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leading GOP voice on climate issues and a co-sponsor of Murkowski's resolution, said last month he expects the measure to pass the Senate. "There are a lot of people who will be in the camp of, 'We should do it, not the EPA,'" Graham said (E&E Daily, May 21).
Graham helped write energy and climate legislation with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) but backed out as a co-sponsor.
Additional votes for the resolution could come from moderate Democrats who are supporting separate efforts to limit EPA's regulatory power. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced another bill that would block EPA's power to regulate stationary sources for two years.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," Rockefeller said last month when asked whether he would support Murkowski's bill.
Rockefeller's four Democratic co-sponsors, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Tim Johnson of South Dakota -- may also be supportive, although several of them have said they prefer the two-year timeout to Murkowski's measure.
Jackson and other critics of the Murkowski resolution have warned that nullifying the endangerment finding would limit the fuel savings and emission reductions anticipated under EPA's new greenhouse gas standards for tailpipes.
Rockefeller says his approach is better than Murkowski's because it would allow EPA to move forward on auto rules while staving off rules for stationary sources. "I think mine's a little better crafted," he said last month.
Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Environment and Public Works Committee who now works for B&D Consulting, said that because "it's looking more and more likely that this will be the only climate change vote this year," several of the moderates who are wavering on it are more likely to vote "yes" this week.
But critics are hopeful that the resolution will be handily defeated.
"I oppose the Murkowski resolution because it would gut the Clean Air Act -- one of our nation's strongest and most effective pieces of legislation," said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is running for re-election this fall. "Instead of debating this misguided resolution, the Senate should move to comprehensive clean energy legislation."
Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, predicted that Murkowski's measure will fail. "I think if she already had 51 votes, she would have called for the vote," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell and other environmentalists have blasted Murkowski for attempting to overturn EPA's scientific determination that greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health and welfare. "It would be very hard for anyone who believes in 21st century science to vote with her," O'Donnell said.
Emily Figdor, federal global warming program director at Environment America, said she is optimistic that the Senate will oppose the measure but said, "We're not taking anything for granted."
The resolution is a "huge attack on our ability to move forward to clean energy on Clean Air Act protections that have worked for 40 years," Figdor said.
She also fears that passage of the measure could hinder efforts at passing a broader climate bill. EPA pre-emption, which is included in the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill, "is a significant motivator" for some moderate senators, Figdor said.