Brian Schatz: The Senate's Fresh Face on Climate Change

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Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) joined the Senate in late 2012 and immediately made domestic and international climate change issues a top priority. Bloomberg BNA reporters Anthony Adragna and Dean Scott sat down with Schatz April 22 to discuss how the freshman senator hopes to elevate the issue in the Senate and why he's optimistic President Barack Obama's climate agenda will survive opposition by the Republican-led Congress.

Schatz acknowledged there is little hope in the near-term for moving broad climate legislation but is confident Democrats could sustain a presidential veto of Republican proposals to roll back actions, including carbon pollution limits for power plants, and said there are between 60 and 70 “grown-ups” in the Senate who recognize the need for U.S. action and for the president to be able to use his executive authority to reach international agreements.

Democrats “wouldn't have expected anything less” from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in attacking Obama's climate agenda on all fronts, Schatz said.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg BNA:

Starting more generally, what do you think the Democratic Party strategy should be on an issue like climate change in the Senate, and do you see opportunities to go on the offensive rather than just defending gains?

Brian Schatz:

There are a couple of tracks here. We're going to be able to move public opinion and have public opinion impact the likely disposition of this issue more quickly than we could simply wrangle the votes as an inside-out strategy. I think this is more similar to gay rights and immigration in terms of the Congress having to catch up with the American public than it is to an issue that hinges on some legislative strategy.

[We're focused on] keeping the drum beat up and making sure that people understand that the American public is substantially on the right side of history but also moving relatively quickly; even the Republican Party voters are moving relatively quickly. And we've seen progress even over the last several months.

One [strategy] is to continue the drum beat and make sure we increase the pressure outside-in. The other is, as a legislative matter, the next legislative fight is going to be on the [Congressional Review Act] and the Clean Power Plan. That is the next moment in time where we'll have a real legislative battle. My own view is that we will win. Whether we win by being able to sustain a veto or preventing a CRA legislative vehicle from reaching the president's desk, we will win.

And once that is disposed of, then I think there are some reasonable Republicans who are going to be more willing to have a conversation about energy policy. And, for years, Republicans said we ought not to do very much on climate because, after all, China and India were not moving with us. And now they are saying we ought not to do very much in the international space and they even want to subject what will be an agreement and not a treaty to Senate approval.

So, I think we have to support the prerogatives of the administration as they go to Paris, and we have to convey to the international community that the United States is not just willing to lead but capable of leading in this space. 

Vote on Climate Deal Inappropriate 

Bloomberg BNA:

A natural follow-up to that is why not subject whatever comes from Paris to Senate review?

Brian Schatz:

Because it's not a treaty. Flat out. The Constitution prescribes what is subject to Senate approval, and if you subject every international agreement to Senate approval, you'd have a lot fewer international agreements. And you would disable the United States from leading on the world stage because you would have every committee and subcommittee chair interfering with every matter of national security or diplomatic policy.

My own view is it's a dangerous precedent. Certainly we have an oversight role, but we do not have the authority to approve or disapprove of individual agreements. We need a secretary of state and we need a secretary of defense in some instances, and we certainly need a president with a free hand to be able to interact with other foreign leaders in a credible way. And, if the Congress is always interfering, I think history has shown that the legislative branch doesn't always do the adult thing.

That's the policy reason. The legal reason is because it's not a treaty. 

Bloomberg BNA:

So it's not a matter of being afraid of what the result would be if there was a vote on the international agreement?

Brian Schatz:

That's also a real concern. The Congress could undermine any agreement because the Congress has demonstrated it's not capable—yet—of leading on climate policy. But there is movement among moderate Republicans, and it started with moderate Republican voters, and it is now seeping into moderate Republican elected officials, where they're realizing they can't stay on the wrong side of history forever.

I don't have any illusions about how quickly that will happen or how many members of the Republican conference we have now, but we have seen pretty good movement in a relatively short period of time because they all go home and they listen to their voters who see climate change is real and it's caused by human activity. And [the voters] believe that we ought to take control of our future rather than do nothing about one of the greatest challenges of our generation.   

Bloomberg BNA:

Did President Obama weaken his hand, though, in the international sphere when he agreed to a compromise role for Congress in reviewing the Iran nuclear agreement? That sort of opened the door to the argument that if the political pressure is strong enough, he might be willing to allow Congress to review an agreement. [Note: Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) reached a bipartisan agreement April 14 that would allow Congress to weigh in on a negotiated nuclear framework with Iran.]

Brian Schatz:

My own view of the Iran compromise is that it was brilliantly negotiated between Corker and Cardin. But, in the end, all it does is clarify authorities that reside in the legislative branch anyway. What we did was set up a process for oversight, and my own view is that it was unnecessary because we have committees for that, and we have authorities under the Constitution for that. I don't think it's much more than a reiteration of the authorities that Congress already has and an articulation of a specific process to go forward, but it didn't change the balance of power in terms of our proper oversight role.

But, it would be improper to subject an international agreement or require any international agreement be approved by the Congress. That's not how these things go. 

60 to 70 Senators ‘Get It'

Bloomberg BNA:

Among the Democratic caucus in the Senate, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has taken a leading role on climate change with expertise in the science, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has been active on climate change internationally, as examples. What do you see as your role, and what would you like to accomplish on this issue?

Brian Schatz:

First of all, I'm trying to build a team. Part of my role is to invite new members to the fold when it comes to prioritizing climate and to continue to ‘mainstream' this issue. To continue to articulate that this is about the American economy, this is about the American way of life and that this isn't just for people who care deeply about conservation and the environment, although that was the beginning of the movement.

In order to get to the kind of majority in the Congress that will eventually take action, we need mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans to understand that this is a national security issue, this is a farming issue, this is a shipping issue, this is a geopolitical issue. I, frankly, think we have somewhere between 60 and 70 grown-ups in the Senate who actually get it, but we now have to develop the political capital so they can do the right thing and survive it. 

Bloomberg BNA:

In terms of building that coalition or alliance, how do you keep some of these coal state Democrats from abandoning the party on some of these tough votes on regulations or on broader issues like climate change?

Brian Schatz:

Well, we don't have any deniers in our caucus. We have people who have expressed concerns about the rapidity of the Clean Power Plan or about how it's being administered or that they feel that it is unfair to their home states, but we don't have anybody who denies that climate change is a reality.

I don't think we're going to be unanimous in our conference on CRA, and I think frankly the quicker we get through that, the quicker we can start to talk about what the solution set is in terms of legislation. CRA is going to be what it is but we, frankly, don't need to hold 60 votes. We need to hold enough to sustain a veto, and we're quite confident there.   

Bloomberg BNA:

What do you make of this approach being advocated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that states “just say no” to the Clean Power Plan and not comply with it? And what would you tell any governors who may be considering that advice?

Brian Schatz:

I don't think it's supported by the law. And I'm quite confident that states' attorneys general and even public utility commissions and utilities are seeing it that way, too. They don't have the flexibility that Leader McConnell is perhaps wishing that they had. I think we disagree in terms of the authority that these states have to ignore the Clean Air Act. 

Bloomberg BNA:

Is it a responsible position for a leader in a major political party to be taking? To simply say ignore this federal regulation?

Brian Schatz:

It's fair to say that Leader McConnell is going to exercise every bit of authority that he has. And, in this instance because he's the leader of the Senate majority and he has his view, we wouldn't expect anything less. He will explore every avenue and use every tactic, but I think this is one area where we agree: We wouldn't have expected anything less from him. 

Impact on 2016 Presidential Race

Bloomberg BNA:

At least Sen. Whitehouse has said the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential election will have to acknowledge the impact of human activity on climate change. Do you agree with that?

Brian Schatz:

I can't predict the nomination—that's for sure—but I do think the Republican nomination process is likely to result in nearly all of them taking unreasonable positions on this. Even for voters that don't wake up in the morning thinking about climate change and wanting to take action, there's still this sense that you don't want your presidential candidate to have their head in the sand on a major issue. You don't want your candidate to stand against modernity, learning, science, taking responsible action. It's going to be a touchstone issue. It may not top, necessarily, any list of priority items, but it becomes disqualifying if your nominee just isn't reasonable when it comes to these things. So I think they become subject to not looking ready for prime time in terms of leading the free world.   

Bloomberg BNA:

You mentioned positive momentum in the last couple of months as several Republicans have acknowledged the human role in climate change during a series of Senate votes. Why do you see those votes as significant, and how do you sustain that momentum?

Brian Schatz:

It's clear that the Republicans have gone from wanting to play offense on energy questions to being absolutely defensive on energy and climate. And I think that started during the Keystone debate. It's fair to say [voting against Keystone] was not, for national Democrats, terra firma—for some of us it was not a problem—but for others it caused some consternation and anxiety, but by the end of it we had made Keystone a subset of the climate conversation rather than climate a subset of the Keystone conversation.

We've been relentless, we've been strategic and the group is growing. And I think the main reason we're seeing some success is because we're right and the American people see that. 

Bloomberg BNA:

So should we look for legislation this year? What's the Senate Climate Change Clearinghouse doing?

Brian Schatz:

A couple of members are working legislation, but we want to be realistic about what could actually gather 60 votes. I think the next legislative battles are CRA and making sure the U.S. is able to lead on the international stage.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna and Dean Scott in Washington at aadragna@bna.com and dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com