49 senators back budget amendment to bring down carbon

By Jean Chemnick | 03/26/2015 06:59 AM EDT

Nearly half the Senate voted last night for an amendment to the nonbinding fiscal 2016 budget resolution that calls on Congress to address carbon emissions.

This story was updated at 9:55 a.m. EDT.

Nearly half the Senate voted last night for an amendment to the nonbinding fiscal 2016 budget resolution that calls on Congress to address carbon emissions.

The amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was defeated with a vote of 49-50. In language tailored to the underlying resolution, it calls for policies "protecting Americans from the impacts of human-induced climate change, which include action on policies that reduce emissions by the amounts that the scientific community says are needed to avert catastrophic climate change."


The measure was meant to come to the floor side-by-side with one by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would have barred enactment of a federal carbon tax (Greenwire, March 24). But Blunt pulled his amendment at the last minute because it was ruled nongermane to the underlying budget resolution. Meanwhile, the measure has been redrafted and could receive a vote tonight.

Blunt said prior to the votes that his amendment made an important statement even though no legislation to price carbon emissions is expected to move anytime soon. He noted that the nation’s largest grid operator, PJM Interconnection, has modeled pricing carbon through an interstate program as a means of complying with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

"I think the administration’s trying to do a carbon tax by any other name, and if there’s no carbon tax movement out there, it should be really easy for members of the Senate to vote not to allow one to go forward," he said.

But there is scant evidence of a "carbon tax movement," though a handful of conservative economists and think tanks have proposed a revenue-neutral model either as a substitute for EPA’s existing power plant rule or to comply with it. Jerry Taylor, president of new libertarian think tank Niskanen Center, is the latest to propose that idea (ClimateWire, March 24).

And one of the few carbon price bills introduced in the last Congress was offered by Sanders, who quipped before the Blunt amendment was pulled that "I’m probably not going to vote for it."

He said before the votes that Republicans "continue to show themselves to be the anti-science party" when it comes to climate change. But five Republicans did cross the aisle to vote for Sanders’ amendment: Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Ayotte, Kirk and Portman are up for re-election next year in battleground states, while Collins and Graham have a history of backing carbon legislation. Kirk also backed a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill in 2009 while serving in the House, but has equivocated on that vote since.

The Illinois senator seemed to suggest in an interview with E&E Daily in January that man-made warming isn’t real — before retracting and backing amendments to legislation to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline that affirmed warming, including a measure that highlighted the "significant" contribution human activity makes.

Two Democrats opposed the Sanders amendment — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

Portman appears to be walking a tightrope on climate change. While he backed the Sanders measure, he hopes to see the Senate vote on one of his own tonight that would endorse the federal government giving cover to states to adopt a "just say no" strategy for the Clean Power Plan.

The Portman measure was introduced on his behalf by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has pressed states hard recently not to submit implementation plans on the rule. Portman’s office stresses that he crafted the amendment language, and it was reintroduced yesterday with a change aimed at making it germane to the budget resolution.

"As always with the budget, this is a statement about a regulation that many of my colleagues think is the wrong approach for their states — it certainly is for Ohio — because it is resulting in deep concern along with other regulations for power plants, and then specifically for energy costs," he said last night.

Portman said he had taken a leadership role in this year’s budget process because "I was asked to do it," but not necessarily because he is up for re-election. "I’ve been asked to do other things on the budget even before I was in this position," he said.

A director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, Portman said his GOP colleagues "like to put me out there," adding that his re-election race had nothing to do with his stance on amendments.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been reluctant to show their hand on this round of climate votes, which follows the three votes on climate science during the KXL debate that they say helped move the needle on the issue.

Sanders’ staff on the Senate Budget Committee says that 500 amendments — and counting — have been filed, but it is unclear which will be selected for votes during tonight’s "vote-a-rama" to stand "side by side" with amendments like Portman’s. Fourteen of the amendments filed pertain to climate change.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said on his way to votes that it did not matter if this round of amendments varied little from the ones offered in January.

"They’ve got no good place to go. They’re somewhere between ‘This is a hoax’ and ‘I’m not a scientist,’" he said. "It doesn’t leave us having to be very specific or exacting about how we spotlight that failure."

Sanders himself took a dim view of what the amendment series could accomplish but said in an email following the vote: "We have a moral responsibility to respond to this crisis and we have to use every tool that we can in our arsenal."

Tonight could see votes on amendments to the wee hours of the morning, including several on climate change.

Meanwhile, the House passed its budget resolution last night, 228-199. Seventeen Republicans voted against it, along with every Democrat present.