Senate Democrats Likely to Preserve Climate, Environment Stance With Schumer as Leader

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By Anthony Adragna and Dean Scott

April 3 — Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the presumptive next leader of Senate Democrats, hasn't been seen as an especially forceful public advocate on environmental issues and for climate action, but former congressional aides and other observers told Bloomberg BNA his past votes and statements show he will maintain the party's support for those issues.

By any measure, Schumer boasts a pro-environment record—he has a lifetime rating of 91 percent from the League of Conservation Voters—and has consistently backed action to address the effects of human activity on climate change. But his Senate priorities largely have been on non-environmental issues such as immigration, health care and financial industry regulation.

The New York Democrat has been virtually silent on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which is at the heart of President Barack Obama's climate agenda, although Schumer has supported it during Senate votes. His office also could not provide any statements Schumer has made backing international negotiations toward a global climate change agreement, although they said he was among 35 senators who signed a March 31 letter backing U.S. leadership in getting a global accord finalized this year.

Former Senate leadership aides, nevertheless, expect Schumer will broaden his priorities to include the environment and climate change once he succeeds Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as leader of the Senate Democratic caucus. They said a party leader's priorities reflect those of the caucus, and Senate Democrats undoubtedly will continue to push for stronger environmental protections.

“He hasn’t been weak on these issues; they just haven’t been on his personal forefront,” Gerald Warburg, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide now with the University of Virginia, told Bloomberg BNA. “I don’t think it’s a stretch at all for Senator Schumer to effectively and articulately state those views.”

Reid, the current Senate minority leader, announced March 27 he wouldn't run for re-election and immediately voiced support for Schumer as his successor. A majority of Senate Democrats have committed to backing Schumer for leader, according to Bloomberg News.

Schumer's spokesman declined to comment on the degree to which he would elevate environmental and climate issues assuming he succeeds Reid, noting the Nevada senator still has more than a year and a half left in his tenure.

Analysts previously called Schumer a mixed bag on energy issues, noting his opposition to projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline and stronger rules for crude-by-rail shipments, but also his backing of hydraulic fracturing, which has triggered environmental concerns.

Slammed Climate Deniers 

When he has addressed climate change publicly, Schumer has been an advocate for climate science that has linked human activities to rising sea level and increasing temperatures.

“Climate deniers like to claim there are competing stories about whether this is true, usually pushing polluter talking points that there is not a scientific consensus on climate change,” Schumer said during a March 2014 all-night floor session Senate Democrats held to urge climate action. “We know this is utterly false. Climate change deniers need to wake up and realize the scientific diagnosis about warming the planet is real.”

Schumer also backed all three major Senate floor votes on proposals to impose mandatory caps on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions caps in 2003, 2005 and in 2008, when he voted yes on a procedural vote on the Climate Security Act, which would have set up an economy-wide emissions trading system for greenhouse gases but was easily defeated.

All three of those bills ultimately failed to clear the Senate.

In 2005, he backed an amendment from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to a broader energy package that would have required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010. And in 2003, Schumer supported the Climate Stewardship Act, which would have required electric utilities, manufacturers and other economic sectors to cut back greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010.

Recognizes Need for Action 

Former Senate leadership aides and environmental groups said Schumer would continue to be a strong environmental advocate and would work hard to defend Obama's Climate Action Plan from Senate attacks to weaken it.

“Right now, he's very strong on the need to uphold the president's Climate Action Plan,” Frances Beinecke, former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg BNA about Schumer. “He knows these issues are incredibly important.”

Beinecke described Schumer as a “real leader” on environmental issues and said he would continue to be a “smart, effective” advocate. There was “no doubt” Schumer would push environmental issues as Senate Democratic leader, Beinecke said, adding that she has had multiple discussions with the senior New York senator on the environment.

Several observers predicted Schumer would serve as a continuation of Reid's strategy toward environmental protection—defending administration actions, such as its carbon emissions limits for power plants and its effort to redefine the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, from Republican attempts to weaken or nullify them.

“I think his environmental bona fides are solid, and I wouldn’t worry he hasn’t been too vocal,” Eric Washburn, former Senate Democratic leadership aide and a principal at Bracewell & Giuliani, told Bloomberg BNA. If there are attacks on the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, “I would suspect he would get vocal,” he said.

Two former senior Reid aides—Washburn and Jim Manley, who is now senior director at QGA Public Affairs—said Schumer would be a strong successor on environmental issues and would support Obama Administration efforts to address climate change.

“Senator Schumer is a strong supporter of environmental policies, and I assume that’s going to continue,” Manley told Bloomberg BNA. “I don’t see [Schumer's becoming leader] having much of any effect on the caucus and/or its views on environmental policies.”

Multiple observers said Schumer represents a state vulnerable to sea level rise, as seen by October 2012's Hurricane Sandy that inflicted an estimated $62 billion in damage to surrounding states.

“Anybody in New York who doubted the effects of climate change changed their minds after Sandy,” Schumer said during remarks following the People's Climate March, a September 2014 demonstration supporting climate action in New York City.

To contact the reporters 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