Lessons from the ‘vote-a-rama’

By Nick Juliano | 03/27/2015 07:38 AM EDT

Sometime after 3 o’clock this morning, the Senate adopted its budget resolution for next year, 52-46, after a unique, marathon session that featured dozens of votes on everything from climate change policy to health care to sanctions on Iran.

Sometime after 3 o’clock this morning, the Senate adopted its budget resolution for next year, 52-46, after a unique, marathon session that featured dozens of votes on everything from climate change policy to health care to sanctions on Iran.

For procedural reasons, the amendments were all vaguely worded and nonbinding — which limits somewhat their usefulness as guides to future legislation. But over the course of the 15 hours senators spent casting votes yesterday and this morning, some clear lessons emerged for the marquee energy and environment fights to come later this year. They are:

1. Republicans need to keep brainstorming if they want to block EPA’s Clean Power Plan this year.

One consequential vote yesterday tested a rifle-shot strategy Republicans are developing in an effort to subvert the Obama administration’s plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector — and showed that critics of the climate plan may still need to hone their strategy.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has spent this month trying to convince state governors to refuse to go along with the soon-to-be-finalized rules from U.S. EPA designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. An amendment last night sought to test the Senate’s views on that argument, but it delivered some bad news for those hoping to undermine the rule later this year.

McConnell’s nonbinding amendment was meant to prevent the administration from denying highway funds to states that refuse to submit plans to hit their emissions reduction targets, and it was added to the budget resolution on a 57-43 vote. But while budget rules require a simple majority for amendments to be adopted, most binding legislation would have to clear 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster. (The exception is a privileged resolution brought under the Congressional Review Act, which Congress is likely to pass once the EPA regulations are finalized, but that would surely be vetoed by President Obama.)

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After coming up short on his amendment, McConnell apparently decided not to pursue an even further-reaching proposal he had put forward alongside Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that was aimed at allowing states to opt out of the climate rules altogether if they could demonstrate a significant drag on the economy or threat to electric reliability.

"I don’t know, at the end of the day, if there are 60 votes for any of these alternatives," Portman acknowledged in a brief interview. "This is one alternative that tells states if they feel this is a good plan for them, they should be able to implement it. But my hope is they go back to the drawing board at EPA and come up with a plan that doesn’t have this highly negative impact on my state."

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), another leading critic of the EPA rules, acknowledged that part of the goal this week was to find ideas that could garner 60 votes. But he said he was not giving up hope; to emphasize his point, Barrasso cited an overwhelming 392-37 vote in the House yesterday on a health care bill that supporters just 24 hours earlier feared would be much closer.

"You go back home, and you hear what the impacts are from people in your communities, and people make decisions," he said. "And you have to see how it is on the day of that vote — on any vote. … It’s hard to know what happens until the vote is actually taken."

2. But Obama’s "Waters of the United States" rule may be in big trouble.

While there is more work to do on climate change, Republicans earlier this week may have demonstrated a filibuster-proof majority in favor of overturning another of EPA’s most controversial rules.

"That’s why I was happy with my ‘Waters of the U.S.’" amendment, Barrasso said.

The amendment was seen as a referendum on the agency’s rule meant to clarify the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction, which environmentalists say is meant to spell out the reach of a law that leaves too many streams and wetlands unprotected, but which businesses and farmers pan as an example of government overreach. It passed 59-40, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who would have voted for it, was absent, meaning opponents of the rule have a clear shot at rounding up 60 votes.

Critics picked up an extra supporter Wednesday in Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who two years ago voted against a similar measure. If Klobuchar would lend her support later this year to legislation or an appropriations rider that would block the rule, it could garner the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, and a majority of House lawmakers already are on record against the rule.

Klobuchar said yesterday she is not necessarily on board with trying to block the proposal outright, but she also did not rule out supporting a rider to do so.

"I look at each thing on a case-by-case" basis, she told E&E Daily. The Barrasso amendment "was kind of a broad thing, and I’ve always said they need to make some changes to the rule."

3. Democrats believe they have the upper hand on climate science — and they’ll never let the issue drop.

This week allowed Democrats to add to the tally of votes they’ve forced this year on questions surrounding the cause of and response to climate change, and they seem to be gaining support for the idea that it is caused by human activity and requires immediate action to address.

An amendment from a coalition of liberal and moderate Democrats provided a new high-water mark of support for action on climate change, albeit one that is still well short of what is needed to actually change the law.

Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island joined Heitkamp and Manchin in sponsoring the amendment, which encouraged legislation "addressing human-induced climate change through increased use of clean energy, energy efficiency, and reductions in carbon pollution." It passed 53-47, with all Democrats on board and seven Republicans: Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Portman.

Kirk, Ayotte and Portman face potentially difficult re-election campaigns in 2016 in states that twice voted for Obama; Graham, who is pondering a White House bid, was part of a small group of senators seeking to pass climate legislation in 2009 and 2010.

Separately yesterday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) offered an amendment keying off a controversy in his home state, where Gov. Rick Scott (R) allegedly directed state officials to stop using the words "climate change" or "global warming." Nelson said his amendment would have prevented any similar "muzzling" of federal officials, but Republicans raised a point of order against the amendment as too prescriptive under budget rules. That required 60 votes to overcome, but the amendment came up short, 51-49. Still, it won support from Republicans Ayotte, Collins, Portman and Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Marco Rubio of Florida.

A day earlier, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered an amendment encouraging legislation to implement "policies that reduce emissions by the amounts that the scientific community says are needed to avert catastrophic climate change," but it fell short 49-50, without support from Heller, Murkowski or Manchin.

This week’s amendments follow a series of votes on the Keystone XL bill in January that demonstrated majority support for the idea that humanity "significantly" contributed to climate change. Democrats are encouraged by the progress — to a point.

"That some Republicans are voting to tell us what the scientific community has been telling us for years, and that we got an additional vote or two is a good thing," Sanders said in an interview. "But obviously, the vast majority of Republicans refuse to recognize reality, and that’s a little distressing."

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a leader on climate issues, said he was happy to see "at least a meaningfully sized group of Republicans who are on the right side of facts" when it comes to climate change, and promised that Democrats would keep an intense focus on the issue.

"We’re going to keep pushing on this issue because it shouldn’t wax and wane with whatever the pundits are currently fixated on," Schatz said yesterday. "This is a planetary emergency, and we’re treating it as such, which means we’re going to keep working on it until the United States takes the leadership role that it must take."