Schumer Sees 2017 Opening for Carbon Fee; Whitehouse Says Momentum Quietly Building

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By Anthony Adragna

June 23 — Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Democratic leader-in-waiting, said June 23 that he sees a possible opening to move carbon fee legislation following the 2016 elections, and he praised President Barack Obama for taking strong executive actions to address climate change.

Schumer said Republicans might be amenable in 2017 to carbon fee legislation because it would bring in additional revenues for the government without directly imposing a tax on the American people, though he noted such a proposal does not yet enjoy total support even within the Democratic caucus.

“I think in 2017 people in both parties might look to [a carbon fee] as the best way to fund the government,” Schumer said at the Rhode Island Energy and Environmental Leaders Day, sponsored by leading climate advocate Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “I think the 2016 election could be a real breakwater on this kind of issue.”

In the meantime, he praised Obama's actions to address climate change through executive actions and vowed to derail congressional efforts to block them.

“We're not going to let that happen,” Schumer said, referring to Republican efforts to block the Clean Power Plan and other Obama environmental initiatives.

The New York Democrat highlighted automobile efficiency standards and the “really good” carbon pollution standards for power plants as two of the “three or four greatest legacies” of Obama.

Schumer is expected to become the top Senate Democrat upon the retirement of current Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the end of this term. Advocates believe Schumer will retain his party's focus on the environment as leader.

“I think the next five to 10 years we’re going to see a lot of progress on environmental issues,” he predicted.

Reid Slams Republicans 

Speaking separately, Reid called Obama's actions to curb carbon pollution from the nation's power plants “important” but noted he was “limited within the law” of what executive actions he could take to address the problem.

“I can't imagine how our business community, our Republican members of Congress can't see this,” Reid said. “We have to use all the tools we have [to address climate change] and without help from our Republican colleagues, we can't get anything done. They don't believe it exists.”

Both Reid and Schumer praised Whitehouse for drawing attention to the issue of climate change and for introducing his American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act (S. 1548), which would set an initial fee of $45 a ton for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted beginning in 2016.

Under the leadership of Reid, Senate Democrats have a different colleague address their weekly caucus luncheon about the impacts of climate change in their states. Whitehouse and Schumer said climate change is the only topic to receive that sort of weekly treatment.

Conversation ‘Ready to Pop.'

Whitehouse also was cautiously optimistic about prospects for carbon fee legislation and said he was in contact with 15 Republican colleagues who wanted to have a more open conversation about how to address the problem.

Republicans, particularly moderates up for re-election, are quietly frustrated with their party's refusal to acknowledge that human activity significantly contributes to climate change or their statements that they cannot participate in the debate because they are not scientists, Whitehouse said. Their frustrations are about “ready to pop,” he said.

“The Congress is often seen as the ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here' place, but beneath the veneer of denial and opposition there is a very lively ferment of opposition” to the current Republican position of denying the seriousness of climate change, Whitehouse said. “Between now and November 2016, you will see substantial movement in that respect.”

Whitehouse, who introduced his carbon fee bill on June 11 with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), responded to a question from the audience by reiterating the bill was intentionally a starting point for discussion and emphasizing revenues collected through the fee could be used for a variety of purposes, including the perennial Republican priority of corporate tax relief. 

“The less detail I have, frankly, the better,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “As it becomes more real and as it gets a little more momentum, then I think we’ll have to [become more detailed].”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at