Senate Dems see energy bill as catnip for voters

By Jean Chemnick, Hannah Northey | 09/23/2015 01:12 PM EDT

Senate Democrats who unveiled a sweeping energy bill yesterday are hoping their long list of clean power provisions attracts voters next fall.

Senate Democrats who unveiled a sweeping energy bill yesterday are hoping their long list of clean power provisions attracts voters next fall.

Combining clean energy and jobs is "an electric combination that I believe is going to take the country by storm, that I believe will be a major issue in the 2016 campaign," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said as the bill was unveiled on Capitol Hill yesterday. Schumer is slated to become the chamber’s top Democrat after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retires at the end of this Congress.

The draft "American Energy Innovation Act," Schumer said, reflects the "wide gulf" between Democrats and Republicans on climate change and clean energy.


"This is going to be a huge issue in the 2016 campaign, with millennials and the whole electorate. It’s going to help Democrats big-time," he said.

The draft measure sponsored by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, with input from senior Democrats on the Finance and Environment & Public Works committees, is a list of provisions aimed at boosting natural gas use, renewable energy and efficiency without the pro-coal and oil provisions that would usually be required to garner Republican backing.

While the measure wouldn’t cap emissions linked to climate change, the bill sets a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2 percent per year through the use of "appropriate authorities and available technologies." The target tracks roughly with the White House’s pledge that the United States will cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025.

The measure also endorses the Obama administration’s quest for a global agreement on warming — an ambition Republican lawmakers are preparing to target in any way they can.

Although the draft language won’t go far in a Republican-controlled Congress where next year’s presidential election is already crimping the legislative agenda, sources say the measure does offer a marker for amendments that Democrats could offer should the Senate take up a comprehensive energy bill.

Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said ideas about curbing emissions and boosting clean energy in the Senate package will likely be elevated in races across the country.

In fact, Chieffo said that’s already happening in a Wisconsin race, where LCV joined with the Environmental Defense Action Fund to launch a television ad critical of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who is running against former Sen. Russ Feingold (D). The ad criticizes Johnson over his opposition to the Clean Power Plan and calling on the first-term lawmaker to back regulations aimed at reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants (E&ENews PM, Sept. 22).

Even Republicans opposed to the Democrat’s energy bill acknowledged the language had a political bent.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday that the Cantwell draft seemed calculated to prop up former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for her party’s nomination. Barrasso noted that Clinton has said that President Obama’s Climate Action Plan should be "a floor, not a ceiling."

Clinton, notably, came out yesterday in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, a position that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took long ago but that Obama has yet to weigh in on.

"So you have the Democrats today in the Senate, the party in the minority … I think just doing part of the bidding for the presidential nominee for 2016, just based on what Hillary has said about energy and the president’s climate initiative," Barrasso said.

‘Political winds shifting’

Despite Republican opposition, green groups are seizing on the Democratic Senate bill as another sign that the politics of climate change are changing.

"We’ve been seeing momentum throughout this year, and I think this is another data point on that shift," Chieffo said. "You’ve also seen candidate and politicians alike move away from straight-up climate denial to ‘I’m not a scientist, I don’t know how much of a role we’re playing.’"

Jeremy Symons, a senior adviser for Environmental Defense Fund Action, said that far from providing the Democratic contenders with a pro-active energy and climate platform, the Cantwell bill finally catches up to where they and most voters already are.

"Congress has been stuck on climate," Symons said, adding that "you can definitely see the political winds shifting."

Last week, 11 House Republicans signed on to a resolution ahead of Pope Francis’ visit this week that seemed to endorse the science of man-made climate change and endorse some action on it. The wording was vague, but a resolution by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) deviated from the position that many GOP lawmakers have taken — that virtually any federal policy explicitly tailored to address climate change would be harmful to the economy.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said on a call yesterday hosted by NextGen Climate that Democrats would put out a more aggressive resolution of their own after the pope’s visit that called for higher targets on emissions reduction and renewable energy deployment.

And EDF’s Symons said that even Congress’ most strident opponents of U.S. EPA climate regulations seem to be moving the defeat of those regulations lower on their to-do list.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not pressing for a policy rider to stopgap funding legislation that would scuttle the Clean Power Plan, despite his past devotion to killing the utility carbon rule. McConnell is still expected to use the Congressional Review Act to challenge the rule once it is published in the Federal Register, but that strategy has virtually no chance of becoming law.

"The pressure point was always on the budget, and clearly they’re getting advice that any kind of showdown over EPA doing its job is bad politics," Symons said. "If it was good politics, they’d be doing it."

Some proponents of climate action — Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) among them — have long held that energy policy is the best way to tackle climate change, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee produced a bill in 2009 that pared efficiency and renewable energy incentives with greater access to fossil fuels development.

But Symons said those previous efforts weren’t a good deal for the climate, because they didn’t explicitly set a carbon reduction goal and because they often did as much for carbon-intensive sources as for clean energy.

"It was always one step forward, two steps back," he said.