LE BOURGET, France -- Ten of the biggest Senate proponents of climate action came to Paris this weekend to tell the world not to listen to Republicans in the United States.
The all-Democratic congressional delegation to the U.N. climate talks was unusual for its size and for the fact it was scheduled between two weeks when the Senate is in session and voting -- and with a government shutdown looming. But members worried that if they didn't travel on the weekend, a packed floor schedule would prevent them from visiting a conference that is crucial to the world's response to warming.
"We are here because of the urgency of the issue of climate change," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who led the trip, during a Saturday news conference at the conference venue outside the French capital.
Cardin and others said they were there to explain that contrary to what Republicans say at home, the United States will deliver on its pledges of emissions cuts and aid. The pledge to cut carbon dioxide between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 is built on a solid foundation of rules and actions that will be difficult to reverse, the Democratic lawmakers said, while the president's $3 billion offer of climate finance to poor countries over four years is likely to come through.
"Look at United States action, not necessarily the rhetoric of individual members of the Senate," Cardin responded to a question from a Danish reporter who asked for a guarantee that the United States would not duck out of an agreement it helped broker again, as it did two decades ago with the Kyoto Protocol.
"United States leadership has brought many nations here to Paris with commitments that I think a year or so ago few people thought were possible," Cardin added.
Central to the deal that will be finalized here this coming weekend is U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan. House and Senate Republicans have succeeded in passing resolutions in the last month that would kill the rules for new and existing power plants, but the president will veto the resolutions, and Congress lacks the votes to override the vetoes.
The Democrats offered themselves as the bulwark against such legislation.
"What you see here are the people who are going to protect what the president is putting on the table here in Paris as a promise from the American people to the world," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who attended the climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, six years ago, which also aimed to produce a deal.
The 48-hour visit also drew Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Chris Coons of Delaware, Al Franken of Minnesota, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Cory Booker of New Jersey. The group left yesterday morning in order to return for tonight's votes.
"It's very packed," Schatz said of their agenda. The senators split into groups and met with delegations from countries and negotiating blocs to argue that the United States will be a reliable participant in an agreement.
Their schedule included bilateral sessions with delegations from India, Bangladesh and Indonesia -- all major developing nations that will have a say in the consensus that develops later this week. India has set itself up as a wild card in these talks, opposing some of the long-term provisions that the United States and other countries want to build into the agreement calling for steeper reduction commitments in the future.
Schatz also met with a coalition of small island states, saying that as an island representative himself, "I understand their plight." Islands that face possible calamity from sea-level rise have prioritized compensation for loss and damage in these talks, and Schatz said the issue came up in some conversations he'd had with developing countries.
U.S. negotiators are open to aid but oppose any language that would open the door to liability for damage related to carbon emissions.
"There's going to be a way to massage the language and get to a place where maybe not everybody's totally satisfied, but there's progress," Schatz said.
But Schatz said the meetings were more optimistic than he had expected.
"I was anticipating that what we might have to do is tamp down anxiety, and there's a little bit of that, but actually people are feeling quite hopeful," he said.
Republicans argue the participants in the Paris talks shouldn't be hopeful.
McConnell makes threats from afar
"The president's international negotiating partners at that conference should proceed with caution before entering into an unattainable deal with this administration, because commitments the president makes there would rest on a house of cards of his own making," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post on the eve of the talks (E&E Daily, Nov. 30).
GOP lawmakers say that if the negotiations produce a deal that has any legally binding components, the State Department should submit it to the Senate for advice and consent. They've warned they won't consider appropriating funds the Obama administration has promised toward the Green Climate Fund for poor country adaptation and mitigation unless that happens.
Other countries are very aware that the Senate has the power to weigh in on treaties. The Clinton administration didn't submit the Kyoto Protocol for ratification because the Senate had already voted overwhelmingly to effectively reject it.
Worries over whether the world's second-largest emitter -- and largest economy -- can join an agreement have weighed heavily here, making McConnell one of the most important influences on these negotiations even though he is not expected to attend.
But the Democrats tried to allay fears by explaining to a room full of foreign journalists at the meeting that President Obama does have independent authority to take on certain procedural obligations -- the submission of new commitments, the review of past progress -- under the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Senate did ratify. A commitment with binding targets would require Senate approval, but such a result is unlikely, Schatz said.
The Hawaii lawmaker told an Indian journalist after the briefing that Kyoto failed because it required ratification. "This one will both be binding and not require Senate ratification," he said.
Republicans dispute this, and GOP House members are likely to make that case when they visit the conference themselves later this week. But while Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who heads a key House subcommittee, and other Republicans from the lower chamber will attend, it is unclear whether any Republican senators will.
Inhofe: another 'truth squad' venture?
Perhaps the most likely contender for an appearance is Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who loves to recount that he journeyed to the 2009 talks in Copenhagen as a "one-man truth squad" to warn the world not to give credence to Democrats' pledges. Those were largely based on plans to enact an economywide cap-and-trade bill that had cleared the House months earlier but that failed to gain action in the Senate the following year.
Whether or not Inhofe reprises his Copenhagen role, he did send a video message to a conference of climate science disputers who are meeting in a Paris hotel today -- at least two of whom traveled from Washington, D.C., Friday night on the same United Airlines flight that carried EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, White House Council on Environmental Quality head Christy Goldfuss and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to the conference.
The video provided by the conservative Heartland Institute, which is sponsoring the doubters' gathering in Paris, shows Inhofe blasting the administration for seeking to skirt Senate approval.
"What the international community fails to realize is that without the support of Congress, the president would be limited to making a nonbinding political commitment with no means of enforcement, accountability or longevity," Inhofe said.
A climate agreement that isn't submitted to the Senate would have no more weight than if the president rolled out an aspiration pledge at a news conference, he said.
"Nothing's going to happen," he assured his planned audience.
Inhofe criticized Obama for focusing on climate change so soon after Paris suffered a major terrorist attack last month and promised the Heartland Institute gathering that American interest in climate change is on the wane.
"You're doing the Lord's work, and we're going to win this thing together," he said.