Eyeing Democratic Majority, Senators Rethink Climate Strategy

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By Dean Scott

Aug. 10 — Hillary Clinton is surging not only in national polls but also in key swing states—and that is good news for a bloc of Senate Democrats who hope to put climate change back on the front burner and fill a vacuum of leadership triggered by the departure of once-towering Senate figures on the global warming issue.

Control of the Senate was already up for grabs, given Republicans who now hold a 54–46 majority must defend 24 seats; Democrats are defending only 10. Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has opened a post-convention lead of as many as eight points in national polls, but more crucial to Senate Democrats is leading in multiple swing states they need to capture Senate control.

There is no single strategy at this point for how a Democratic-controlled Senate would pursue climate change bills in the 115th Congress. But it is already under discussion, according to Bloomberg BNA interviews with more than a half-dozen Democrats, each of whom have been staking out areas of expertise for a future legislative push. Some favor initially taking an incremental approach—say, improving energy efficiency or focusing on super climate pollutants—and building on those successes before pushing more comprehensive legislation, such as a cap-and-trade approach or a tax on the carbon content of fuel.

“The question is, do you want to take some preliminary steps right off the bat that bring a few Republicans on board?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who is pushing a bill to cut certain super climate pollutants such as hydrofluorocarbons. “Or do you want to go headlong into a fight over pricing carbon” with little chance of passage anytime soon, he said.

“I think there’s some low-hanging fruit that we can get to before we tackle the issue of controlling carbon. I think there’s a potential bipartisan agreement on controlling methane, HFCs and black carbon—that might be a wise starting point for us,” Murphy said.

Democrats need a net gain of only four seats if Clinton wins the White House Nov. 8—her vice president would decide a tie—or five if Republican nominee Donald Trump wins the presidency.

Carving Out Positions

But if they take the majority this fall, Democrats will be sitting down to strategize on a climate legislative agenda with no clear leader, following the retirement this year of the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Retiring after 23 years in the Senate, Boxer now joins four former colleagues who also led ultimately fruitless campaigns for Senate action on a climate bill: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), now secretary of state; Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) who with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) brought the first cap-and-trade bills to the floor more than a decade ago; and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who with Lieberman had the last climate bill on the Senate floor in 2008.

Senate Democrats say they are ready to step into that vacuum.

“Sen. Boxer has been an incredible leader in this regard, she really has been. But there are others, and I think she’d be the first to acknowledge that,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who is in line to chair the Foreign Relations Committee if Democrats win the Senate. “We may not have the numbers but we have intensity, and we’re winning the battles. I think you’re going to see that type of strategy moving forward.”

New Voices Emerge

Many Senate Democrats ready to step into the limelight for climate action weren’t in the chamber for the last big showdown on the floor over climate legislation in 2008, when it fell 12 votes shy of the 60 needed on a procedural vote. In addition to Murphy, they include Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-author of cap-and-trade legislation that cleared the House in 2009, as well as Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Markey, Murphy and Schatz are relatively new to the Senate, but they each in recent years have staked out areas of climate expertise: Murphy and Schatz, for example, are both internationalists in prodding the U.S. to lead on global climate action but also see themselves as political realists who point to the need for building on passing smaller bills and gradually broadening support for a comprehensive approach.

Those more junior senators have plenty of company among more senior Democrats who stress that they are just as committed to moving climate legislation; several of them are poised to chair committees where they could have more of an impact than their junior brethren in actually moving bills.

They include Maryland’s Cardin—an internationalist focused on climate impacts on the Chesapeake Bay—at the helm of the foreign relations panel, and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who could have his choice to gavel either the Environment and Public Works Committee or the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee under a Democratic majority. And lastly, there is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), known for his weekly speeches on the Senate floor highlighting climate change and the co-sponsor along with Schatz on carbon tax legislation.

Carper gets high marks from Senate colleagues of both parties for working across the aisle and shying away from outright attacks on Republicans who oppose climate action, which has led to some grumbling among environmental groups that he lacks the passion needed to move a climate bill as chairman. Carper rejects that suggestion.

“Whether ranking at EPW or chair—or for that matter at Homeland Security—one of the critical issues of our time is how we will deal with sea level and climate change. I have cared about this since I got here” in the Senate, “and the flame burns strong,” Carper said.

Tom Lawler, previously Carper’s chief policy adviser, said there shouldn't be concern over Carper's commitment.

“Among environmental groups, I think there are in fact people that perceive that and it’s a complete misperception” of Carper’s commitment to addressing climate change, Lawler said. “The difference here is Sen. Carper works very, very hard on whatever issues, to not take up a bludgeon” to colleagues but instead find common ground, he said, adding that a cooperative approach is imperative to get 60 votes for a climate bill in the Senate. “There’s been a lot of speeches on climate change the last eight to 10 years, on both sides of the aisle and a lot of going to separate corners” instead of working toward a consensus, said Lawler, now with Lawler Strategies consultancy. “We’ve all kind of gone through those first stages of contemplating the issue and the next couple years will be a sweet spot for trying to pass some legislation.”

Environment Committee's Role Unclear

Still unclear is whether any comprehensive climate legislation will follow the traditional path that has routed environmental bills through the Environment and Public Works Committee. A carbon tax would likely be handled by tax committees such as the Senate Finance Committee and likely be negotiated with the next president as part of a broader tax overhaul—which could sideline the EPW panel and, to some degree, its chairman.

Other reliable votes for climate change legislation include Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who together tried but failed to get traction on their streamlined alternative to the Waxman-Markey legislation—which they termed a cap-and-dividend bill—six years ago. Cantwell isn’t convinced that putting Democrats in charge of the Senate alone will make the difference in moving climate legislation.

“You’re thinking who is in charge is the factor here, but I think really the issue is we are seeing more and more and more impacts” from rising sea level and increasing global temperatures, Cantwell said. “What people have to realize is that mitigation and adaptation are here—whether you are talking about floods or increased wildfires—we’re going to have to spend more time on the impacts of these issues,” she said.

Green Climate Defender

Merkley, the Oregon Democrat, has staked out some international territory of his own by taking the lead in what is now a yearly battle over a $500 million U.S. contribution to the United Nations Green Climate Fund. Congressional Republicans have tried but failed to derail GCF funding since the Obama administration in 2014 first pledged $3 billion over four years to the fund; Merkley has been successful the past two years in striking a Republican prohibition against such spending in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The U.S. must do its part to address climate change both domestically and internationally, according to Merkley. The U.S. has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels as its contributions to global climate action under the 2015 Paris Agreement. But it has to contribute in other ways internationally, such as helping developing nations adapt to climate impacts and cut their emissions under the Green Climate Fund, he said.

“First, there’s a growing bipartisan understanding of the importance of this effort, one that involves the United States certainly pivoting off of fossil fuels,” Merkley said. “But we can’t change the trajectory of the planet by ourselves and that requires a lot of cooperation and partnership.”

Carbon Tax Skepticism

Markey, who helped steer a cap-and-trade bill with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) through the House seven years ago only to watch it die with barely a whimper in the Senate, said the climate challenge can be met only with broad legislation that cuts U.S. emissions and boosts clean energy and addresses climate impacts.

But he questions whether the Senate is on the cusp of moving either a carbon tax or a broader approach similar to his 2009 bill, which set mandatory emissions caps that decline over time through an emissions trading approach and mandated states get a portion of their energy from renewable sources.

“Waxman-Markey was comprehensive and I continue to believe you have to deal with this that way,” Markey said. But he showed little enthusiasm for what many economists see as a far simpler approach of taxing the carbon content of fossil fuels, an approach backed by some Democrats including Schatz of Hawaii and Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Any carbon tax proposal “has to make sure that the poor and the middle class [are] completely held harmless, which would also be a significant legislative challenge,” Markey said.

He points to a June vote on the House floor—a resolution putting the chamber on record as opposing a carbon tax—as a bellwether of resistance to that approach by an overwhelming number of Republicans and even a few Democrats.

The resolution (H. Con. Res. 89) passed 237–163; not a single Republican voted against it. “I was not happy that every single Republican in the House voted for a resolution saying a carbon tax should never be adopted under any circumstances, joined by a half a dozen Democrats,” Markey said.

“That vote is just so recent” to suggest there is any hope of moving a carbon tax soon, he said.

Top-Tier Issue

Hawaii's Schatz said a Democratic-controlled Congress would consider climate change a top-tier issue for the party to take up.

“It’s at the very top of the list. There’s a broad understanding—we get it,” Schatz said. “This is a planetary emergency and we need to get to 60 votes, which means this needs to be a middle-of-the-road, bread-and-butter Democratic issue.

“American leadership is essential and that requires the Senate to step up and do its job. And this is something I think we can make progress on in 2017 should we take the Senate,” Schatz said, even as he acknowledged that climate legislation faces an uphill battle regardless of who controls the chamber.

Progress will require moving beyond the traditional constituency of climate activists and environmental groups that back either a cap-and-trade approach or a carbon tax, Schatz said.

“The next step for the climate movement in the Senate is to mainstream it—we can’t afford to have a bloc of environmentalists working on this issue as if it is just a constituency that needs to be placated,” he said.

Resigned to Incremental Approach

But Schatz and his Democratic colleagues will have to overcome widespread skepticism that 60 votes will be there to move climate legislation eight years after Lieberman, Warner and Boxer were defeated in their last attempt on the Senate floor.

One obstacle going forward is the dwindling support for climate legislation among Republicans; of the six Republicans voting to proceed on the 2008 bill, only one is still in the Senate today: Maine Republican Collins.

Collins is considered a reliable vote for environmental and climate legislation. Her 65 percent lifetime score on key environmental votes from the League of Conservation Voters rates her higher even than some Democrats, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (43 percent) and Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly (56 percent).

But Collins is wary of talk that Democrats could make another run at comprehensive legislation, blaming environmental groups for refusing to get behind incremental changes that over time she believes can make a dent in emissions.

“I have always felt that the approach on climate change should be to do this in a step-by-step approach,” she said, by pursuing smaller bills on energy efficiency or the measure she co-sponsored with Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, targeting especially potent greenhouse gas emissions such as hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon.

“In other words, chalk up some small victories instead of trying to solve the huge problems or pursue highly controversial and divisive issues like the carbon tax,” Collins said. “The fact is, a carbon tax and other controversial proposals will not make it through Congress.”

So far though, that incremental approach hasn't yielded much in the way of dividends.

The Murphy-Collins Super Pollutants Act of 2015 (S. 2076) hasn’t picked up any additional co-sponsors; another bill (S. 2194) that Collins co-authored with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)—the Clean Cookstoves and Fuels Support Act, to curb black carbon and soot emitted from cook stoves—has been met with the same indifference by senators of both parties.

“I just don’t understand why those [bills] aren’t priorities,” Collins said. “And I do not understand why the environmental movement does not embrace these smaller steps, which I fully recognize are just beginnings. But if we could start winning some smaller victories it would make a difference. Instead we have nothing—because some environmental groups in particular are so focused on just getting a carbon tax that they ignore all these other efforts.”

Long Shot: Carbon Tax

Among all the senators Bloomberg BNA interviewed, there appeared to be no cohesive direction for climate legislation going forward. The big alternative to a complex cap-and-trade approach is the carbon tax, which economists often favor as the simplest approach to putting a price on carbon.

Doing so could allow cuts in the corporate income tax rate or payroll taxes—or both—but some of its supporters acknowledge they face an uphill battle pushing a new tax in Congress.

Even Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat working with Schatz to push a carbon tax, admits that the fate of a carbon tax is linked to whether Congress takes up a broad overhaul of the U.S. tax system. And talks of a grand bargain between Democrats and Republicans is a perennial discussion that doesn't appear to bring it any closer to fruition.

“Yes, it’s always next Tuesday” for an overhaul of the tax code, Whitehouse said. Talk of a grand bargain that could bring fundamental reforms of entitlement programs and the tax code between President Barack Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner (R) dissolved into disappointment in the summer of 2011; it has gotten only occasional traction since then.

“But even if that’s true, there is a decision coming down the pike on which way to go on U.S. legislation,” the Rhode Island senator said. And a cap-and-trade system—which would cap U.S. emissions and require fossil fuel and other industries to purchase carbon permits for every ton of greenhouse gases they emit—is done, Whitehouse said.

“The cap-and-trade approach is tainted by all the Wall Street market failures that we’ve had to live through … that is added weight to that approach that I don’t think needs to be carried in order to get a solution” in addressing climate change, Whitehouse said.

A carbon tax could gain at least one more supporter in the Senate next year if Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)—perhaps the lead voice for that approach in the House—wins his race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D); he is heavily favored to do so.

Introduced by Whitehouse and Schatz in June 2015, their American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act (S. 1548) would set a $45 a ton fee on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, beginning in 2016. Whitehouse said the fact that a carbon tax can raise such large sums—some carbon tax proposals could raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year—make it an attractive option to allow long-sought reductions in the corporate tax rate.

The Rhode Island Democrat also is mulling a tweak that would use some of the revenue to help students cut their ballooning student loan payments.

“Once the prospect of a carbon fee becomes somewhat real, then the prospect of how you use those revenues becomes somewhat real, and that’s an advantage,” Whitehouse said. “And as some very powerful lobbying interests have said to me, ‘It’s the unicorn right now Sheldon—when it becomes a horse, we’ll want to ride it.' ”

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

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

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