Republicans still hunting a way forward on landmark climate deal

By Jean Chemnick | 01/06/2016 08:26 AM EST

If Republicans are preparing to launch an offensive against the historic climate change agreement the Obama administration struck in Paris last month, they’re being awfully quiet about it.

If Republicans are preparing to launch an offensive against the historic climate change agreement the Obama administration struck in Paris last month, they’re being awfully quiet about it.

While die-hard congressional opponents of President Obama’s climate policies did respond to the mid-December news that nearly 200 nations had accepted a long-sought deal, those statements were fewer and less vitriolic than expected — especially considering that the White House was claiming the accord as a cornerstone of the president’s climate legacy.

An analysis by the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote, released soon after the deal was finalized on Dec. 12 in the French capital, found 10 Republican senators and 18 Republican congressmen released statements criticizing it. Some important names were not on that list — including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Reached for comment, his staff said that the committee is "continuing to examine the best way forward to ensure Congress plays its appropriate role."


That’s not to say that the agreement didn’t register in Washington. But Republicans who did weigh in tended to argue that the deal is mostly politically binding and barely worth the 31 pages of paper it’s printed on. Rather than articulating a plan for how to defeat it over the coming months, GOP lawmakers hint at a much more passive strategy in which a Republican president is elected, walks away from the agreement and never looks back.

A handful of committees on both sides of Capitol Hill are expected to hold hearings on the Paris agreement and the domestic policies that support it during the congressional session that begins this week in the House and next week in the Senate. But so far, Republicans haven’t outlined a plan to wrest control of the agreement away from an administration that insists it has signed off on one that does not require Senate approval.

McConnell: Paris just a ‘planning document’

There could, however, be some fireworks.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has pledged to renew his demand that the administration supply lead climate negotiator Todd Stern to address his committee — despite the fact that it is not viewed to have jurisdiction over the State Department. The House Energy and Commerce; Science, Space and Technology; and Appropriations committees are among others also expected to exercise oversight.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who had planned to lead a House delegation to the Paris talks until votes interfered, penned an op-ed in The Washington Examiner a week after the deal was finalized, minimizing it as a "signal" of Obama administration preferences rather than a treaty.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) may hold hearings on the Paris climate change agreement. | Photo by Sue Ogrocki, courtesy of AP Images.

"While some may claim the resulting deal is a grand triumph, the bottom line is that this was a nonbinding political document that does not impose any new obligation on the United States," Whitfield wrote, adding that Obama "misled the international community in Paris."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dismissed it as "nothing more than a long-term planning document."

The agreement for the most part does not obligate the United States under international law — though it does include some procedural components that are legally binding and that the administration says are supported by prior treaties.

Its architecture is the result of heavy negotiating by Secretary of State John Kerry and climate negotiator Stern, who carried to Paris a mandate of avoiding an agreement that would require Senate advice and consent — a condition that would have made U.S. participation impossible. In fact, the U.S. delegation delayed adoption of the deal until what it says was a typo stating that developed parties "shall" take future steps to bring down their absolute emissions was corrected. The language was changed to the less-mandatory "should" before it was approved by parties (ClimateWire, Dec. 14, 2015).

While the weaker wording made it harder for Republicans to claim the Obama administration had improperly obligated the United States to deliver reductions not authorized by Congress, many then panned the deal as toothless and inconsequential.

Inhofe, who skipped the conference, citing a packed pre-holiday floor schedule, called the resulting deal a "desperate effort" by the administration to claim international buy-in for an unpopular domestic climate agenda.

A big deal or a nothingburger?

The State Department’s end run around the Senate had long been expected, but Republicans thought they had a strategy in place going into Paris that would at least make it embarrassing for the Obama administration.

House and Senate majorities pledged in November that they would withhold international climate aid during the coming appropriations battle pending submittal of an agreement. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Inhofe spearheaded a letter signed by most of their GOP colleagues informing Obama of their plans to withhold the funds, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a resolution making Green Climate Fund (GCF) funding contingent on the submittal (ClimateWire, Nov. 19, 2015).

That leverage evaporated when Obama signed a long-term omnibus spending bill into law before Christmas, which the State Department says will allow it to supply the $500 million the United States promised toward the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund for fiscal 2016. While Washington must pass another spending bill by October, the timing right before this year’s presidential election makes passage of a stopgap bill likely. So future battles over the GCF will probably have to wait until there is a new occupant in the White House — if they happen at all.

That timing could also derail perennial Republican efforts to attach riders to next year’s spending bills aimed at scuttling other aspects of Obama’s domestic climate agenda, as well, including EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

"Their strategy didn’t work," said Karen Orenstein, a senior analyst at Friends of the Earth, of the Republican effort to use the "power of the purse" to hamper the Paris talks. She argued that having failed to stop the GCF funding, Republicans who once decried the deal as an approaching economic catastrophe now seem bent on minimizing its importance.

"They’re backtracking," she said. "The content of what they’re debating hasn’t changed. If it was a big deal then, it should be a big deal now."

Barrasso seemed to split the difference. He did not reiterate his call to withhold GCF funding in a speech on the Senate floor after Paris, but he cast the agreement as both meaningless and potentially harmful.

"Parts of the agreement can do damage to our jobs and our economy," he said. "At the same time, important parts are not binding on other countries."

The inconvenient truth of Paris: hard to undo

The relatively muted response to Paris on the part of many Republicans coincided with a general GOP outcry over a Government Accountability Office finding on Dec. 14 that EPA improperly promoted its controversial water rule on social media.

Whitfield, who heads a key Energy and Commerce subcommittee, joined with other committee Republicans on a Dec. 17 letter admonishing EPA to steer clear of using "similar shenanigans" in promoting its climate rules.

RL Miller of Climate Hawks Vote said a brief analysis showed that between two and three times as many Republicans commented on the Twitter "propaganda" finding as weighed in on the Paris agreement. She said this indicated to her that the radio silence was not due simply to the awkward timing of the conference in the midst of efforts to move a budget and oil exports bill and before Christmas.

"It’s not a question of them being too busy and too caught up in other things; they just don’t have anything to say," she said.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Paris agreement is inconvenient to Republicans because it contradicts their favorite talking point that the Obama administration is acting alone to curb emissions in ways that will damage the U.S. economy. It is also futile, he said.

"It’s not like they can do something that can undo Paris," he said.

Even the components of the U.S. pledge to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 appear to be safe from congressional intervention right now.

Looking for the next fight

Congress passed Congressional Review Act resolutions late last year to kill EPA’s power plant carbon rules, but Obama refused to sign them. And it seems unlikely that this year’s abbreviated legislative session will produce successful legislation to roll back the marquee climate rules when previous efforts to do so have failed.

Opponents of the carbon rules hope to see the courts invalidate them and are seeking a legal stay. Scott Segal of the legal and lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani notes that, if granted, a stay would give Congress more time to act — possibly under a new president.

But the likely scenario seems to be that the courts will decide the fate of the Clean Power Plan, just as next year’s presidential election may decide the fate of U.S. participation in the Paris deal. And Congress has scant control over either.

Meyer said Corker’s unwillingness to focus his committee’s attention and resources on Paris appears pragmatic. The Foreign Relations Committee chairman is a moderate who has said human-caused emissions are contributing to warming.

"To me, it says that Corker understands that there’s no political traction here to engage Democrats in the way [the committee] did on the Iran issue, for example," he said. "And he doesn’t want to be someone who pursues a partisan-only agenda."

But Segal said Congress may have more tools at its disposal than some believe. For one thing, the tussle over GCF funding may not be over. Last month’s spending bill does not contain a prohibition on State Department funds going to fill the adaptation and mitigation fund, but neither does it dedicate funding to it. If the department chooses to redirect funding to the GCF, it may need to ask permission of appropriators, he said. And that could be another opportunity for lawmakers to demand a say on Paris.

"I think there are a lot of people in Congress that would welcome that fight," Segal said.