Have Senate Democrats Created New Momentum to Tackle Climate Change?

Metling Glacier Photo Credit Bernard Francou/San Andres University via Bloomberg

Senators on a new caucus that aims to push for action on climate change and defend President Barack Obama's efforts on the issue met for the first time Jan. 16 to discuss strategy, including some possible legislative initiatives.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg BNA that while members of the caucus did discuss how to defend against Republican attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to limit power plant greenhouse gas emissions, the inaugural meeting was mostly about “offense.”

About a dozen Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I/D-Vt.) also spoke about introducing what Boxer would only describe as a “positive”— a Senate resolution on the issue of climate change.

Such resolutions often are used to put the Senate on the record on an issue but are typically nonbinding.

There are now more than 20 members of the Senate Climate Action Task Force. Boxer and other members of the climate caucus unveiled the group Jan. 14 as a united front in defending the climate action plan Obama unveiled in June 2013.

“Playing defense is part of it, but mostly it's about offense,” Boxer said, adding that the group will announce some legislative plans in the coming weeks. Boxer said the caucus also discussed an attempt by Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to halt Obama's attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

McConnell, along with 40 Republican co-sponsors, filed a resolution of disapproval Jan. 16 under the Congressional Review Act in an attempt to block new source performance standards for greenhouse gas emissions for future power plants proposed by the EPA.

The resolution requires 60 votes to invoke cloture, according to a McConnell spokesman.

In a separate Jan. 16 letter, McConnell asked the Government Accountability Office to clarify whether the act could be applied to proposed rules. The statute has traditionally been applied only to final regulations.

'Newfound Momentum.'

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said after the meeting that there is “newfound momentum” for action on climate change in the Senate and vowed to make the issue a personal priority in 2014.

“We're going to move on all fronts— on the communication side, on the legislative side,” Schatz told Bloomberg BNA. “I think it's fair to say that some of the longtime climate champions are finding that they have new reinforcements.”

Other climate caucus members attending the meeting included Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.)

The caucus pairs senior Democrats like Boxer with relatively new senators like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who as a congressman co-authored the cap-and-trade bill that cleared the House in 2009.

Boxer said senators are to be briefed on the climate issue by Sen. Angus King (I/D-Maine) at a Senate policy lunch the week of Jan. 20. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed earlier in January to reserve a “permanent spot” at the party's weekly strategy meeting to focus solely on climate issues.

With the Republican-controlled House and most Senate Republicans opposed to broad climate change legislation, Democrats' recent efforts on the issue are seen as an acknowledgement of their need to defend Obama's initiatives in the short term.

But they also are hoping to lay the groundwork for resurrecting broad climate legislation, which died in the Senate in 2010, in the long term.

Follow @DeanTScott on Twitter@AnthonyAdragna also contributed to this blog.