Push for déjà vu climate votes raises some eyebrows

By Nick Juliano | 03/25/2015 08:08 AM EDT

The bloc of Senate Democrats most concerned about climate change is angling for a new round of votes this week aimed at calling out Republicans who dismiss its link to human activity.

The effort will look very familiar — senators took a half-dozen votes in January on climate science — and the approach being eyed for this week’s consideration of the budget resolution is raising eyebrows even among some potential allies.

"We already had a vote on Keystone, so we’ve already had those votes," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said, referring to a series of amendments offered to a bill that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. "I don’t know we gain much by just repeating those votes."

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Republicans are planning their own suite of amendments that would block or rein in various Obama administration rules, including U.S. EPA’s plan to regulate emissions from new and existing power plants.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans this week offered an amendment that would let states opt out of submitting their own emissions-reduction proposals as part of the Clean Power Plan (E&ENews PM, March 24).

Several other regulations also are likely to be targeted, including EPA’s proposed regulation to clarify the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction, which is the subject of an amendment from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and the Bureau of Land Management’s just-finalized rule governing hydraulic fracturing on public lands, which would be undone by an amendment that Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced yesterday.

Among the budget amendments currently pending — meaning they are likely to see votes — are two related to public lands and species protection.

Republican Sen. Steven Daines introduced an amendment related to the designation of national monuments. The Montana freshman secured a vote on a similar amendment requiring approval from state officials before monuments are designated, but it fell short of the 60 votes it needed to be added to the Keystone XL approval bill.

Republican Sens. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota freshman, and Inhofe, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, also have an amendment currently pending. It would bar EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service from entering into "closed door" settlements, an apparent reference to various legal agreements between environmental groups and the Obama administration that have led to new regulatory efforts and drawn conservatives’ ire.

None of the amendments is binding, like the budget resolution itself. But the votes can help to clarify where senators stand on controversial issues or provide fodder for campaign-season attack ads.

Democrats also plan to offer side-by-side amendments on their alternative view on rules related to power plant emissions, oil and gas fracking, water quality and other issues Republicans are expected to bring up, Cardin said. He added that several colleagues are adamant about another round of climate change votes, predicting "a variation of what you saw on Keystone."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is leading the climate amendment effort, said details are still being finalized but that he is not overly concerned about avoiding déjà vu.

"I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to pan out, but concern about variety is not necessarily at the apex of our worries," Whitehouse said.

During the KXL debate, Whitehouse introduced language positing that climate change is not a "hoax" in an amendment that all Republican senators except one rushed to support when they realized it said nothing about a link to human activity. Later, just five Republicans voted for an amendment proclaiming a significant link between human activity and climate change, while an additional 10 allowed for at least some linkage and the majority of the party maintained that the two issues were disconnected.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said continued votes would build momentum for the proposition that climate change is "real and that we have to do something about it and that it has real consequences" and that numerous budget amendments had been drafted this week.

"Every time we have votes, we do better and better," said Boxer, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. "We’re winning people over to our side; we’ll continue to do this."

Still, some senators say Democrats may do themselves a disservice with continued trips to this politically charged well.

"It’s not constructive, let’s put it that way, because we already know where everybody stands," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who voted for all of the Democrats’ pro-climate amendments on KXL but maintains strong support for the coal industry and opposes EPA’s climate rules. "I’m just trying to look for a solution, that’s all, and the solution is going to be technology."

The amendment push is "just political theater" designed to rile up the base, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who once worked on bipartisan climate legislation and voted for an amendment acknowledging that human activity significantly affects climate.

To be fair, "political theater" can accurately describe plenty of votes that will happen this week, as the Senate continues debate over its fiscal 2016 budget. Consideration of the nonbinding resolution provides the Senate an opportunity for a freewheeling amendment debate that tends to touch on myriad hot-button issues.

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