For the first six years of the Obama administration, Senate Republicans' minority status has handcuffed their efforts to rein in the environmental and energy policies they loathe.
But if Republicans retake the Senate in this year's election, it'll be open season for attacks on President Obama's environmental agenda.
A GOP takeover of the Senate would mean Republicans could finally set the agenda for votes and hearings, haul Obama administration officials to Capitol Hill to testify, slice even more cash from controversial agencies' budgets and continue to stall nominees for key agency posts.
"When it comes to the agencies they don't like, including the EPA and others, I think what you're going to see happen is Republicans throw everything but the kitchen sink against the wall, and they're going to wait and see what sticks," said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who now works at QGA Public Affairs. "What you're going to see is amendment after amendment, budget cut after budget cut, all of which is designed to take a nick at the different agencies."
Perhaps the biggest impact on agencies like U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and the Energy Department would be ramped-up efforts to cut their funding -- and some of the administration's pet programs.
"Those three agencies are really important and a significant part of the president's agenda," said former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a longtime member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "If the Republicans take over the Senate, there will be an appetite for more aggressive hearings on how the administration is using its executive powers, there will be an appetite for riders and all the ... things that have been bottled up that they want to do."
But, Dorgan added, "all of that will be more for show than it will be for impact, because most of that will not get done and the president will have ultimately a 67-vote veto pen in any event."
EPA -- a favorite target for many Republicans -- would see its funding and regulations come under siege with increased fervor.
"I think we're likely to see a lot of the same stuff we've seen from a Republican House, in which they seem to put the blame for practically everything on the Environmental Protection Agency," said David Gardiner, former EPA policy chief during the Clinton administration.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will presumably become majority leader if the GOP takes control of the chamber -- and he wins his own tough re-election race -- is already savoring the prospect.
"If I'm the majority leader next year, I'll be in charge of the schedule," McConnell told the University of Kentucky's Kentucky Sports Radio this week. "We will be voting on efforts to push back against the EPA."
During the budget process, the Democratic Senate majority has served as a bulwark against policy riders aimed at stripping the Obama administration's authority to carry out contentious environmental and energy policies. But playing defense will get tougher for the White House and congressional Democrats if the GOP controls both chambers.
Obama could veto agency budgets if they arrived packed with riders he disliked, but the two sides would have to find a compromise to keep the government running.
"Among the questions is whether House Republicans are going to be interested in any sort of compromise or whether they're just going to send one extreme appropriations bill after another over to the Senate, defying the president to veto it. I assume that the president will take a stand and veto these bills if they overreach," said Manley, which could mean that "one of these environmental or regulatory initiatives could serve as the impetus for another government shutdown at some point next year."
Mike McKenna, an energy lobbyist and GOP strategist, said he'd expect a Republican-led Senate to pursue plenty of riders aimed at hamstringing agency programs.
"I think they're going to target where there's a lot of coherence on the Republican caucus," McKenna said. That includes EPA's widely criticized Clean Water Act proposal, pending efforts to regulate coal ash disposal and a draft rule to clamp down on power plants' greenhouse gas emissions, among others, he said.
However, McKenna said, policy riders might not be as widespread as many people think.
"When you go back and look at the history of it, it's not like any particular agency has ever been subject to more than a handful of them," he said. Republicans would be "fairly limited by what the tolerance is of the moderates in the caucus," like GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, he added. "There are seven or eight folks who are at some point going to draw a line and say, 'OK, we're not going to do that or this or the other thing.'"
In addition, Republicans in 2016 will be defending Senate seats in a half-dozen states where Obama prevailed in both 2008 and 2012 -- Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- so they may not want to pursue an aggressively conservative agenda for fear of jeopardizing some of their incumbents.
Nominations going nowhere
The Senate's sluggish approval of agency nominees isn't expected to get any faster if the GOP takes control of the chamber.
The Obama administration has about 250 nominees waiting in the pipeline to get confirmed for government posts, according to White House data, including seven picks for DOE jobs and six for EPA positions. That includes nominees for some jobs that are critical to the administration's agenda, like bosses for EPA's air and water offices and undersecretary for science at DOE.
But a Republican takeover could hurt some of their chances of getting approved before Obama's term runs out in January 2017.
"Their prospects are worse if the GOP takes over, just because at that point there's nobody in the majority who's really in favor of moving these nominees forward," Gardiner said. "Generally, Republicans would believe that one of the best ways to make sure that [Obama] is not successful is to not let his people be put in place."
Republicans are still fuming over Senate Democrats' maneuver last year to invoke the so-called nuclear option, changing Senate rules to make it harder for the GOP to block nominees. Under the rules change, agency nominees no longer need 60 votes to overcome filibusters. Instead, they require a simple majority vote for confirmation (Greenwire, Nov. 21, 2013).
"The Republican caucus is uniform in its distaste for what happened with respect to the rule change and is going to figure out novel ways to punish the Democrats," McKenna said. "There will be no nominees confirmed by Republicans" if they take the Senate, he added. "Maybe a couple of guys at Defense, but other than that there will be nobody."
'EPA under permanent investigation'
The tenor of the Senate would change dramatically under GOP leadership.
Republicans would win the rights to set the schedule for floor votes, control the gavels in powerful committees and gain the authority to haul in top officials to testify. They'd likely intensify scrutiny of EPA and other agencies after complaining for years that Democrats have fallen down on their oversight obligations.
That means EPA's Gina McCarthy, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz -- as well as other top agency officials -- could be making more frequent trips to testify in Senate hearings next year.
"Among the most important things that a Senate that's Republican would do would be to put somebody who's a strong critic in charge of [the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee] and basically put EPA under permanent investigation," Gardiner said.
If the Senate changes hands, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is expected to retake the EPW gavel under GOP chairmanship rules. He was chairman from 2003 until 2007 and ranking member from 2007 until early 2013, when his six-year term as top Republican expired and Sen. David Vitter (La.) assumed that slot.
Inhofe is now the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, but it's expected that McCain would take charge of that panel and Inhofe would resume the chairmanship of EPW, where he's eligible to hold the gavel for two more years (Greenwire, Sept. 23).
The EPW panel could follow in the footsteps of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has led a slew of probes into federal agencies' inner workings under GOP leadership. EPA has been under a microscope by that committee and others in recent years as GOP lawmakers have sought to undermine some of the Obama administration's policies, while Senate Republicans have complained that oversight in their chamber has been insufficient.
"The EPW Committee is capable of doing so much more than just cheerleading for the administration and EPA's dangerous policy agenda," Vitter said this week in a statement. "The EPW Republicans' priorities will not change, however. It's absolutely necessary to increase the pace of oversight a hundredfold and increase communication with the administration in general. EPA specifically has gone too long without Congress taking a good hard look at its budget, systemic management issues, and the secret science used to justify their expensive rules and regulations. We'll keep the boot on their neck."
Senate flip could fuel new energy bills
GOP leaders in the Senate are also likely to push energy production bills if they win the majority, although it's unclear whether they'd have the votes to clear the chamber or withstand White House opposition.
Much of that action would likely come from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would presumably be headed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) if the chamber switches hands.
"We're talking about a committee that's all of a sudden going to be looking at ways that they can expand fossil fuel development," Gardiner said. "They would be working with partners in the House that think very much the same way that they do, so I think there's the prospect for bad legislation that could begin to emerge from a Republican Senate."
McKenna said he'd expect the GOP to bring up "pro-production" energy bills with an eye toward scoring political points by forcing Democrats to take tough votes.
"Why don't they just take [Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.)] revenue-sharing bill and throw that onto the floor?" he asked, referring to legislation that would send more revenues from oil and gas drilling directly to coastal states like Louisiana and Virginia.
"Look at a guy like Mark Warner or Tim Kaine and essentially dare them to vote against it," McKenna said. The Virginia Democratic senators would have to decide whether to help send a bill to Obama's desk "and force the president to veto it," he said. "There are numerous ways to make it painful."
Senate Republicans would almost certainly try to advance legislation to force Obama's hand on the Keystone XL pipeline, McKenna said, adding, "We're not going to get 60" votes needed to avert a filibuster. Meanwhile, he said, such a vote would help Democrats in races because they could say they opposed the president on the issue.
GOP senators may also pursue broader energy packages if they take the chamber, McKenna said. "If there was a chance to do something smart and meaningful on the production side on hydraulic fracturing, on unlocking more federal lands for production, I think people would jump at that."
Still, many observers expect that ongoing gridlock in the Senate would block most efforts to legislate, regardless of which party controls the chamber.
"Unless the culture changes, I don't expect that there's going to be an opportunity for anybody to get very much done, and that's regrettable," Dorgan said. "But there will be a determined minority with a lot of strength in the upper 40s, no matter which way the Senate goes. A determined minority will stop a majority if they're trying to create an agenda that they want to try to stop."
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