A rollicking amendment process of the type Democrats avoided when they controlled the Senate is providing an opportunity to begin building a beachhead around Obama administration rules sure to come under fire throughout the year.
The ongoing debate over the sure-to-be-vetoed Keystone XL bill is allowing senators to test strategies for the higher-stakes showdowns ahead, among the most intense of which will be over the fate of U.S. EPA's sweeping proposals to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants.
Democrats believe they scored an early victory in the EPA rules battle this week by forcing 15 Republicans to cast votes acknowledging that human activity plays at least some role in climate change. All but one Republican, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, joined every voting Democrat is supporting an amendment declaring that climate change is "not a hoax" but leaving open the question of humanity's role.
Earlier this week, a majority of the Senate, including five Republicans, cast a vote in support of Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz's proposition that humanity is "significantly" contributing to problems like increasing temperatures and rising sea level. A parallel amendment from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) acknowledging but not quantifying humanity's impact received 59 votes, one short of passing. Hoeven supported his own amendment but voted against it because he worried its inclusion would be a poison pill to the underlying KXL bill, his chief of staff, Ryan Bernstein, said yesterday.
Environmentalists and their Democratic allies are now arguing from a stronger position that anyone who supported either the Schatz or Hoeven amendment but proposes to eliminate the EPA rules has an obligation to present an alternative.
To be sure, there is a wide range of opinion, even within each party, on what a replacement for EPA's program should look like. But those disagreements could keep any clean curtailment of EPA's rules short of 60 votes, given the range of support for the underlying science demonstrated this week. That may provide enough political cover for senators to argue that EPA's rules, while perhaps not ideal, are the only existing option and should remain in place until something better comes along.
"Now everybody can turn around and say, 'Well, then, what's your plan?'" said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who sponsored the "not a hoax" amendment, said he viewed the results as the "beginning of a discussion" to build support for EPA's climate policies based on the notion that climate change needs to be addressed.
Wednesday's vote series "alone is probably not going to do it," he acknowledged yesterday. "But as a continued process of holding them to account on very specific points, it helps protect the programs that are designed to defend us all against those threats."
Republicans who voted "yes" on man-made warming would not necessarily oppose policy riders to roll back administration climate policies, said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who backed Hoeven's amendment but voted against Schatz's.
"We still want to make sure that our country flourishes; we still want to make sure that energy is as inexpensive as possible," he said.
But he said that doesn't mean that Republicans won't pursue their own, market-friendly climate policy. "Would we like to put tech in place; would we like to use technology for greater efficiencies and less pollution? Absolutely," he said.
Democrats were stymied in their attempt yesterday to further refine senators' positions on how to address climate change when Republicans successfully tabled a pair of nonbinding amendments from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) outlining different approaches to climate change. Sanders' amendment called for a transition away from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, while Manchin's emphasized the need for technology to clean up those sources, given their abundance.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), whose views on climate science have come under fire recently, broke with Republicans and voted against tabling the Manchin amendment, while two Democrats, Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, joined all Republicans in voting to table the Sanders amendment. The votes otherwise fell along party lines, obscuring efforts to further clarify how senators would prefer to address climate change.
"Their effort is to try to hide their votes as best they can -- but from my point of view, if you vote to table, you're voting 'no,' and I think this is a very sad vote," Sanders said last night.
A majority of the Senate did back an amendment from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) targeting President Obama's recently announced climate agreement with China, although it fell short of the 60 votes senators agreed would be needed to attach it to the KXL bill. The nonbinding resolution, which said the United States should not enter into bilateral agreements that require greater emissions reductions than the other party, failed 51-46.
At the very least, the climate science votes will make it difficult to pick off Democratic votes necessary to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to clear virtually all bills through the Senate.
Manchin and Heitkamp said in separate interviews yesterday that they would likely support efforts to block EPA rules outright, but both also said that they did not anticipate having enough additional Democrats to go along with such efforts. That would leave such measures short of 60 votes regardless of how potentially on-the-fence Republicans would decide.
'Finding that comfortable middle'
Given the broad desire among GOP leaders to rein in EPA, though, Manchin suggested this week's votes may open the door to broader negotiations about what should be done instead to address climate change.
"There are three or four of us on my side. ... Let's say we need another two or three more," Manchin said. "So the bottom line is, are Republicans willing to work to massage that middle to ... their comfort level. And it might help them and save them from themselves in finding that comfortable middle, too."
Heitkamp agreed that she would support ending EPA's existing rules, even without an alternative to replace them, because they do not provide sufficient time to develop low-emissions coal technology. Furthermore, she said that simply blocking the rules would not provide the long-term certainty that utilities need to plan new coal plants, and she asserted that 60 votes weren't there to begin with.
A better plan would be to craft a long-term approach to climate change as well as the need for base-load electricity generation in a way that avoided the most strident voices on either end of the debate. And she predicted that this week's votes expanded the middle ground on which those conversations can happen.
"There's 'hell nos' on both sides," Heitkamp said in a brief interview yesterday. "There's people who ... clearly want to shut down coal, and then there's people over here who clearly don't want any regulation. And the real world is somewhere in between."
Heitkamp and Manchin both touted the need for additional spending on research into ways to clean up fossil fuel production, ideas that could win favor from factions of both parties. Others who recognize the need for action on climate change have emphasized the need for additional carbon-free nuclear energy, while environmentalists tend to support policies such as carbon taxes or renewable energy mandates to shift the power sector to new sources like wind and solar.
Those debates will continue -- likely without resolution anytime soon -- so the environmental movement is focusing most of its energy on protecting EPA's Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to submit plans to reduce emissions from their existing fleet of power plants, and on the agency's New Source Performance Standards, which set strict emissions limits on new coal-fired plants.
"It's fine to talk about alternatives, but we have to recognize this Congress isn't ready to pass anything meaningful on climate," said Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America's Washington, D.C., office.
While the climate science votes provided a boost to those efforts, their venue provoked some caution.
"In a logical world, you'd say we can't take the only thing to solve this," Aurilio said. "But this is the Senate, and it doesn't always follow logic."