Whitehouse, Romney spar over Budget panel’s climate focus

By Emma Dumain | 03/13/2024 06:31 AM EDT

Sen. Mitt Romney said Tuesday the committee’s climate work was more “Barbie” than “Oppenheimer.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) during a hearing on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, he questioned the Budget Committee's focus on climate. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is the latest Republican to complain about the Senate Budget Committee’s climate focus under Chair Sheldon Whitehouse.

Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, held a hearing Tuesday on the president’s new $7.3 trillion budget proposal — an issue over which the committee has clear jurisdiction.

But for Romney — who is not running for reelection — the meeting was an opportunity to zing Whitehouse for using his perch to highlight global warming’s economic and fiscal impacts.


Other GOP senators have questioned Whitehouse’s tactics, but Romney’s comments are particularly notable because the Republican has spoken previously about the need to act on climate change. He has even accused Democrats of not doing enough on the issue and endorsed policies the majority of his conservative colleagues refuse to touch.

On Tuesday, Romney compared the Budget Committee’s work under Whitehouse to two recent award-winning films.

“I’m afraid what we do here is more ‘Barbie’ than it is ‘Oppenheimer,'” said Romney. “The public thinks we work on the budget. But we don’t.”

Whitehouse retorted that climate change is “going to smash into the budget.”

The testy exchange between the two lawmakers came after months of grumbling from Republicans on the committee, who pointed out that roughly half of the panel’s hearings over the past 15 months have been climate-focused.

Whitehouse, a longtime climate hawk who is seen as the next top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has made no apologies for the shift in focus on the Budget Committee, arguing that accelerating climate change will have widespread impacts on insurance costs and municipal bonds.

The spat also came one day after President Joe Biden released his budget proposal for fiscal 2025, which seeks increased spending at EPA and for renewable energy initiatives. Congress last week finalized a half-dozen fiscal 2024 bills that slash spending at EPA and the Interior Department.

Romney on Tuesday rattled off a series of past hearing titles like “The Cost of Oil Dependence in a Low-Carbon World,” before continuing his broadside.

“These are important topics,” he said. “They just don’t belong in the Budget Committee. This is a committee that’s about performing, about getting on stage and acting like we care about things, but there is nothing being done by this committee to deal with spending.”

Whitehouse jumped in to dispute the characterization: “About a third of our total federal debt is produced by crises that we were warned of and didn’t respond to,” he said. “My God, if there is a crisis looming that we’re not responding to, that’s going to smash into the budget, it’s climate change. So I have no hesitancy about continuing to do that work.”

Romney said he agreed with Whitehouse on global warming, but pointed out that 14 of the 28 hearings the committee has held have been on climate change.

“Wait until the budget gets blown out by it,” Whitehouse cut in.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). | Francis Chung/POLITICO

‘What’s happening globally’

GOP lawmakers routinely show up at Budget Committee hearings to complain about Whitehouse’s agenda.

The ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), often likes to remind colleagues he championed the wind energy tax credit while grumbling about the panel’s outsize focus on the environment.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) typically makes appearances to question Democratic-invited witnesses about how much money the federal government has spent to combat the climate crisis. He questions the science behind man-made warning.

Romney, in contrast, has been so vocal about climate action that he’s expressed support for pricing carbon, an idea almost universally opposed by his fellow Republicans and around which Democrats have so far failed to coalesce.

In the committee’s first hearing of the 118th Congress, Romney accused U.S. elected officials of “virtue signaling” and maligned Democrats for not taking the opportunity to put a price on carbon in their signature climate spending law, the Inflation Reduction Act.

“We can talk about all the things we’re doing — getting batteries for cars and so forth — but the reason it’s not making a difference is because the U.S. is not the biggest contributor to emissions in the world … China’s emissions are greater than the U.S., the EU and Japan,” Romney said back in February 2023.

“So when we do things here that are very expensive and disruptive to our economy, they don’t change what’s happening globally. … Research and technology and the price on carbon are the things that will make a difference.”

National labs and climate change

The majority of the hearing featured discussions on taxes, Social Security and defense spending, among other subjects. Even Whitehouse used his time to question the witness — Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget — about social safety net spending rather than the environment.

Still, one Democrat asked Young about an important home-state topic that touched directly on one of Romney’s endorsed approaches for addressing climate change. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), whose state is host to two major Department of Energy national labs, asked Young whether the administration was committed to bolstering funding for federal research and development initiatives that were key to combating climate change.

“President Biden committed to reaching a net-zero emission economy … this commitment requires a massive reinvestment in [research and development] and our national labs,” said Luján. “I know our national labs are capable and eager to help the nation and the world solve the climate crisis, but the president and Congress need to provide them the sources to get the job done.”

Young said Luján at the very least had her commitment: “Our budget contains $10.7 billion for labs; I know more is needed.”

She added that Biden “understands how important the national labs are to our fight to reaching net-zero carbon by 2050, and absolutely we want to continue our partnership to make sure our labs are robustly funded to meet the moment.”