Freshman Dems: the unofficial climate-hawk caucus

Second in a two-part series on junior members of Congress. Click here for part one.

They haven't changed the balance of power in the upper chamber, but a handful of first-term Democrats are setting the stage for more fluent communication about the risks and benefits of a national strategy to fight global warming -- and elating environmentalists in the process.

At the head of the Senate majority's freshman class for conservationists are Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, whose maiden floor speech promoted clean energy investment; Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whose first legislative campaign began as a wetlands protection effort; and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who called climate change "the most urgent challenge of our generation" just after his appointment to the seat he is now defending.

Beyond that trio -- all are younger than 42 -- are Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, whose 97 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) replaces the 84 percent score of former Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.); Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who defeated a top target of green activists in ex-Sen. Scott Brown (R); and Tim Kaine of Virginia, who broke from the pro-Keystone XL stance of his Democratic predecessor last month with an op-ed against the controversial oil sands crude pipeline.

"We set about getting members elected who are not just a vote" in favor of pro-environment legislation, Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV senior vice president for government affairs, said in an interview, "but climate champions."


While Sittenfeld name-checked Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as one of greens' most valuable allies, she singled out the first-term Democrats for "taking ownership" of climate change.

"Democrats have always been right on this issue, but it's fair to say that the sense of urgency among newer members has given us new momentum," Schatz said in an interview about the vocal roles of his fellow first-termers.

Murphy echoed the sentiment: "It's not a coincidence" that younger members "are pushing the caucus forward on the issue of climate," he said.

"I've got two sons who might be alive at the end of the century, when temperatures might be 6 to 8 degrees warmer" if the direst projections of global change come to pass, he added. "I've got a real stake in getting this right."

The group has a model of sorts in Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the Senate leader of a bicameral climate change task force, who delivers weekly floor speeches as part of a personal interest in highlighting the science behind adverse consequences from man-made greenhouse gases (ClimateWire, March 7).

"Our job is to bring in some reinforcements" for Whitehouse, Schatz said, "so he's not alone in the wilderness but part of a growing group of people who will eventually be in both parties." Schatz, who was appointed late last year to replace the late nine-term Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and is running in 2014 to fill the rest of Inouye's term, was endorsed the other day by former Vice President Al Gore as he battles with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Democratic primary.

Whitehouse, for his part, described himself as "delighted to work with" the crop of outspoken first-term Democrats on drawing attention to climate change. But he took a dimmer view than Schatz of the prospects that younger Republicans might soon follow their wary interest in immigration reform with even a rhetorical embrace of emissions limits.

When it comes to global warming, Whitehouse said, "Republicans are a little bit like the cartoon character who's walked off the cliff but hasn't looked down yet." A decade or more might pass before a similar crop of young GOP lawmakers takes an interest in the issue, he predicted.

The 'incumbency culture'

The environmental fervor of first-term Democrats is not limited to their voter registration -- independent Angus King of Maine, a member of the caucus, touted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data to CBS News before he took office -- nor is it confined to the younger arrivals in Washington. New Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is a climate dean unto himself, as Whitehouse observed in his interview with E&E Daily.

What's more, their ranks stand to swell next fall if Rep. Gary Peters (D) of Michigan wins his bid to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D). Peters' advocacy for more federal attention to the environmental impact of petroleum coke, a byproduct of refining Canadian oil sands, won him early praise from Sittenfeld of LCV. The Sierra Club endorsed Peters last week.

But perhaps the most intriguing question mark that surrounds the first-term Senate Democrats is whether their ardency can survive their next election cycles. More than a few of the lawmakers they replaced -- like former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- were seen as strong environmental supporters but pursued less far-reaching legislative solutions while working alongside Republicans who did not share their views on climate.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, ascribed the impulse to moderate on contentious issues such as climate change to the influence of Washington's "incumbency culture."

"When new members come to Congress, they tend to be much more ideological, much more optimistic, and quite frankly, a little more dogmatic than their elder colleagues are," Holman said in an interview.

"The longer members stay in Congress, the more they tend to become acclimated" to the need for healthy re-election coffers "and what that means when you have to compromise your values."

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