Republicans predictably denounced President Obama's climate and energy speech yesterday as a political misstep with real-life consequences for American consumers.
But some in the GOP began wringing their hands over the party's failure to produce its own climate and energy plan.
"Opposition to the president's plan is an understandable reaction, as it's deeply flawed," said Eli Lehrer, president of conservative think tank R Street Institute. "But eventually there needs to be a Republican alternative, or otherwise, big government schemes like this one will be the way we deal with climate change, at an immense cost to the economy."
Senate Republicans quickly labeled Obama's plan a "national energy tax" that would do more to hurt the economy and reduce jobs than lower energy prices.
"This is more than a war on coal and energy, it's a war on family budgets and American jobs," said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). "By imposing costly regulations, the president is in effect raising electricity costs for every home, small business and manufacturing company in America, who all depend on affordable energy."
But Lehrer said the Republican Party's lack of a firm plan for tackling climate change and its inability to craft an energy policy have given Democrats and the White House the upper hand politically.
Individual Republicans are rallying around proposals aimed at increasing domestic energy production while simultaneously curbing emissions without raising prices. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, for example, released a blueprint earlier this year calling for emissions cuts while boosting domestic oil and gas production.
The R Street Institute is calling on Republicans to take a bolder step and embrace a revenue-neutral carbon tax while scrapping subsidies for energy production. Andrew Moylan, an R Street senior fellow, said the idea is gaining some traction on Capitol Hill, and the group is in the "early stages" of determining whether a carbon tax, even if revenue-neutral, has any place in the party's platform.
Regardless of the mechanism, the GOP must act, Moylan said.
"There's going to be increasing urgency among conservatives for figuring this out," he said. "Yelling 'no' from the sidelines or wishing the president's plan wouldn't exist isn't much of a plan."
One Republican who has offered up solutions in the past agreed with that sentiment.
Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) said he hoped Obama's speech would provide an opening for conservatives to "rise to the occasion and offer the far better alternative."
Now executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which advocates for free-enterprise solutions to climate change, Inglis said conservatives face the risk of falling behind on the climate debate without a viable alternative.
Inglis, who was ousted in a Republican primary during the 2010 tea party wave, has been calling for a tax on carbon emissions balanced by a reduced taxes on income and investments. That, Inglis said, is a proposal that relies on "bedrock conservatism" by bringing accountability for emissions and allowing the free market to dictate climate change solutions.
"This should give conservatives another indication that the real risks of inaction result in clumsy EPA regulations and an expansion of the government and the nanny state," warned Inglis. "This should add to the argument that we ought to be acting and getting a proposal out there."
"Let's not cast ourselves in the opposing mode rather than the proposing mode," he added.
But it's unclear if Republicans will firm up a climate plan, Lehrer said.
For now, the most immediate legislative proposal has come from John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who vowed to put the Senate "on the record" on the president's policies. That, he said, would come in the form of an amendment or a sense of the Senate resolution on some forthcoming legislation (E&ENews PM, June 25).
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) turned the policy around to the other side of the aisle, saying the "question that needs to be asked is: Are Senate Democrats going to go along with the president's national energy tax?"
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), on the other hand, said Obama's focus was wrong altogether.
"Anytime you go the regulatory route, it makes it hard to get consensus -- unilateral action is not the right way," Alexander said. "Rather than give a speech about how to address climate change through EPA, I wish he would try to pull us together as a country to find ways to become more energy independent in a low-carbon way."
Some Republicans who push back against the notion that their party hasn't advanced an energy agenda in recent years note that Alexander has proposed a measure to build 100 new nuclear power plants.
House Energy and Commerce Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said that the best response by Republicans would be to use legislation to go after Obama's regulatory agenda, taking the debate out of the courts and administration and instead turning it back to Congress.
"We've got to come up with a bill ... and we'll direct EPA on what they should or should not do," Whitfield said. "We're going to make the Democrats in the Senate face this issue."
Whitfield pointed to previous House votes on language barring EPA from taking regulatory action, including limiting emissions from power plants. EPA, he said, has never considered that legislative opinion, so Republicans ought to use that as their balance to the White House plan.
One Republican strategist said the GOP's plan is to take no action on climate change because the real focus is the economy and production of cheap energy.
The president's decision to put a fine point on climate and phasing out coal plants only pits Democrats against ratepayers, taxpayers and individuals holding pensions with heavy doses of utility stocks that will likely be saddled with new costs, said Brad Todd, who works with the Alexandria, Va.-based GOP political firm OnMessage Inc. and has worked for GOP candidates and campaign committees.
Some Republicans believe there will be political consequences for incumbent Senate Democrats in conservative states (Greenwire, June 25) and for certain House Democrats, as well (see related story).
"I'm overjoyed to see him take this step," Todd said of Obama's climate plan. "Republicans have the superior political position on this issue. The president is far outside the mainstream of where the public is."
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