Reports this week that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would vote to kill U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan left many people in his home state wondering what had become of their moderate senator.
Kirk told Politico Tuesday afternoon that he would back Congressional Review Act resolutions to scuttle the new and existing power plant rules — striking at the heart of the Obama administration’s climate agenda.
But while the votes have long been a priority for his chamber’s Republican leadership, Illinois environmentalists and clean energy advocates were caught off-guard when Kirk — who has sometimes been an ally — pledged his support. The move was all the stranger, they said, because Kirk is one of the nation’s most endangered Republican incumbents in the 2016 election cycle — and all his current competition comes from liberal Democratic challengers.
"This is one that has all of us scratching our heads," said Environmental Law & Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner. "Everybody’s reaction is just to be puzzled and wonder what he’s thinking."
Kirk, after all, is not what activists frequently call a "climate denier." He was one of the eight Republican House members who broke ranks with their party leaders to help a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill clear the lower chamber in 2009. Last January, he joined three other Senate Republicans on an amendment declaring that human emissions are a "significant" driver of warming, and in March, he backed a budget amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) calling for policies "protecting Americans from the impacts of human-induced climate change."
In July, he circulated an email touting his role in removing a policy rider to the State Department’s fiscal 2016 spending bill before the Appropriations Committee that would have prevented the United States from making good on its pledge to fund international efforts to cut carbon.
"I am writing to let you know that this week we demonstrated more bipartisan support for reducing the effects of climate change around the world," he told constituents.
But now Kirk has promised to vote to kill the core policy supporting the U.S. pledge to cut emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — a promise the Obama administration hopes will help deliver a global emissions deal in Paris in six weeks’ time. The Senate vote is likely to occur before the U.N. conference.
To be sure, Kirk has been a kind of legislative "Where’s Waldo?" when it comes to climate change. Neither his campaign nor his Senate office responded to calls to comment for this story. And the senator has refused to discuss the cap-and-trade vote in the years that followed, and even sometimes seemed to dispute climate science. He told Greenwire in January that the fact that explorer Leif Erikson chose the moniker "Greenland" for that frozen landmass might be evidence that climate change is natural, not man-made (Greenwire, July 9).
Learner called that statement "curious" but said he was comforted by the science amendment and budget resolution votes.
Then, in June, Kirk used the same Appropriations Committee perch to vote several times to preserve language in the Senate’s fiscal 2016 spending bill that would prevent EPA from implementing the Clean Power Plan.
Greens in Illinois felt betrayed by Kirk, who they said had always been an ally on renewable energy and Great Lakes preservation issues. But they also wondered what prompted him to take this position.
"We do meet frequently with his staff, and we didn’t see this coming," said Amy Francetic, CEO of the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust, which promotes low-carbon energy.
The EPA rule is both popular and profitable in Illinois, Francetic argued. She pointed to her group’s polling from August — immediately after EPA released the final version of the Clean Power Plan — which showed that Illinois voters generally support it.
Sixty-seven percent of the state’s voters backed the rule. The number was the same for independents, whom Kirk will need to woo next year.
"I don’t think he’s necessarily aligned with the state on this," Francetic said.
Kirk is also not aligned with Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the nuclear-heavy utility that is his fifth-largest campaign funder. Exelon has endorsed the rule as a boon to its six Illinois nuclear plants, which have struggled to remain online.
"The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which requires significant reductions in carbon emissions from power plants, calls for states and the power sector to find the most cost-effective solutions to achieve the reductions," said a company spokesman.
"Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to meet the Clean Power Plan targets without the benefit of the existing nuclear fleet," he said. States like Illinois will need to support nuclear or find costlier compliance options elsewhere, he argued.
In discussing his decision to support the Congressional Review Act maneuver with Politico, Kirk referenced concern for Illinois’ coal-mining communities.
"I have been very pro-employment to southern Illinois," he said, referring to the state’s coal country. "With this rule applied, I don’t think we can keep a lot of people in Illinois happily employed."
But Francetic said the green energy industries the rule would encourage are actually bigger employers in-state than the dwindling coal industry, with 104,000 workers finding employment in the clean energy sector in 2014 — excluding ones in natural gas and nuclear fields.
The National Mining Association reports that Illinois had 4,164 employed coal miners in 2013.
Learner said he didn’t understand Kirk’s political calculus in backing this vote. His main opponents thus far are Rep. Tammy Duckworth and Andrea Zopp, the former president & CEO of the Chicago Urban League, who are competing for the Democratic Senate nomination. If he fears a tea party-backed Republican primary challenge at this date, that candidate would have a month to file for a mid-March primary — a scenario that seems unlikely.
A July poll by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Duckworth 6 points ahead of Kirk.
"This is not Wyoming," said Learner. "And certainly, given his relatively endangered status in a re-election campaign in a state that is purple if not blue, why Senator Kirk thinks it’s in his best interest to pander to climate deniers is a head-scratcher."
‘Fiscal and social sanity’
A moderate GOP strategist was just as perplexed by Kirk’s recent decision to swing to the right. Even if Kirk — who spent his House career representing a suburban district that, like Illinois, leans slightly blue — does fear a primary, this is an odd way to burnish his conservative credentials, the strategist said.
"Why would you pick the environment to go conservative if you were worried about a challenge?" he said. "Why this issue and why now? He’s had an entire career of middle-of-the-road fiscal and social sanity."
And Kirk is not going to the right on everything. He was the only Republican to buck leadership last week to block legislation that would crack down on cities that oppose enforcement of federal immigration laws. The vote drew conservative ire but was likely calculated to appeal to Illinois’ growing immigrant and Latino voting blocs.
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the announced votes on the CRA resolutions may be intended to balance the immigration vote, which was politically important.
"To be completely anti-immigration like some of the Republican Party is would be a dangerous position here," said Simpson, a former Chicago alderman.
Kirk’s task, he said, is to keep "the conservative wing from putting anybody up to challenge him and getting the independent and some Democratic votes that he will need in the [general election] Senate race."
But Daniel Weiss of the League of Conservation Voters questioned this premise. "The threat from a right-wing primary is more imaginary than real because the filing deadline is a month away and the primary would be three months away," he said.
Weiss said that he was not surprised by the news that Kirk would back the CRA resolutions.
"After his three votes this summer to kill the Clean Power Plan, it’s not surprising that he would take that position again," he said.
The CRA votes seem likely to further irritate environmental political action groups that in July ran television and digital media ads attacking Kirk for his support for the appropriations riders (Greenwire, July 6).
But the move might win some kudos from conservatives who once sharply criticized Kirk for his cap-and-trade vote.
"Illinois residents and businesses would see a dramatic increase in energy costs due to the regulations, with the poor being disproportionately harmed by increased costs," said David From of the Illinois branch of Americans for Prosperity. "Any elected official who wants to decrease rather than add to the financial burden borne by Illinois families and wants to grow, not kill, jobs in southern Illinois should oppose the Clean Power Plan."