A Republican and Democrat form a climate caucus. What can they get done?

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2019

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX)

It has been about a decade since the Senate seriously kicked around ideas for tackling climate change on a bipartisan basis. Now, two senators are hoping to change that.

Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) announced Wednesday they are forming the first Senate bipartisan caucus focused on finding solutions to climate change that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

But the senators have a tough road ahead of them if they want to build legislation on an issue that many Republicans, including President Trump, refuse to acknowledge as a scientific reality. The new caucus is a sign while moderate compromises are possible, a big comprehensive bipartisan climate bill is still far away. But the pair suggested a deal may be what’s necessary to address the warming of the planet in the long term.

“I’m dear friends with Joe Donnelly,” Coons said of the Indiana Democrat that Braun unseated last year. “One of the challenges of serving here is you’ve got to be willing to extend your hand and say, ‘Great to meet you. Welcome to the Senate. What can we work together on?’ ”

Braun, who halls from a state hit this year with devastating floods, does not count himself among those doubters about human contributions to rising temperatures. “I just know when you put carbon into the air, it creates a greenhouse effect,” he said in an interview with Coons. “That’s chemistry and physics. And I think if you keep doing it, it’s going to get harder to fix than nipping it in the bud.”

The creation of the caucus comes as many Senate Democrats, including those running to unseat Trump from the White House, pitch a series of proposals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions far more aggressive than what was pursued during the Obama administration, spooking many conservatives.

Yet at the same time, a handful of Washington Republicans are cautiously wading into the debate about how Congress can combat climate change, often by promoting innovations in types of carbon power generation with little to no carbon footprint. The last time Republicans and Democrats in the Senate seriously tried hammering out a climate bill with a chance of passing was the cap-and-trade bill in 2010.

“There have been a lot of private conversations, and now some of those conversations are becoming public,” said Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, a group of conservative business leaders interested in advancing a revenue-neutral carbon tax. “As the politics of climate change are evolving, Republican members in particular have struggled to identify policies” to support.

Only one other Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski from the quickly warming state of Alaska, has committed to joining the caucus so far, though Braun expects to add more Republican members in the coming weeks. The two senators want to keep an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the caucus.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

A similar climate caucus in the House is still trying to find its footing after its Republican ranks were decimated in the 2018 elections. Rep. Francis Rooney, who replaced fellow South Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo as the top GOP member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, has struggled to find more than just one other GOP co-sponsor for a carbon tax bill designed to cut payroll taxes. And Rooney recently announced his retirement in 2020.

“We haven’t had a lot of success recruiting a lot of co-sponsors,” Rooney said. “But there are more Republicans talking about climate change as something that needs to be addressed. So I’ll take that as optimistically a good step.”

Placing a price on carbon, which would encourage companies to invest in lower-emission methods of generating electricity and moving people around, is popular among many economists. Even some elder GOP statesmen have warmed to the idea. Former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz have suggested putting in place a $40-per-ton tax of carbon dioxide.

Both Braun and Coons said they are willing to consider that and other carbon pricing mechanisms. “I’m open to anything because I believe in science and markets and technology. You take those three things, I think that’s what’s going to drive us to solving the issue of climate change,” Braun said.

But the Baker-Shultz proposal comes with a compromise: In exchange for taxing carbon emissions, Congress would cut air regulations and limit lawsuits against oil companies.

“In my caucus, the idea of permanently rolling back all regulatory power for the EPA for greenhouse gases?” Coons said. “That’s a tough sell.”

“I don’t think that would happen,” Braun added.

Braun said he and Coons hope to pick off “low-hanging fruit,” or legislative ideas that should find broad bipartisan support.

That may include more research dollars toward clean energy and improvements in energy efficiency, Coons said. Among the ideas that Braun, who chairs the Senate Environmental and Public Works subcommittee on nuclear safety, backs is investing in the next generation of smaller and conceptually safer nuclear reactions.

But there are clearly limits to the comradery. Last week, Braun and most Senate Republicans voted to keep a Trump administration regulation on coal-fired power plants that congressional Democrats have decried as too weak.

Trump doubled down on that message in a speech during a shale conference Wednesday in Pittsburgh by promoting his reversal of environmental policies under Obama, including the repeal of the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants and the approval of permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

“I promised that, as president, I’d unleash American energy like never before, because our natural resources do not belong to the government,” Trump said. “They belong to the people of this country. And I am proud to declare that I have delivered on every single promise I made.” He later said: “You’ll never have another president like me. That’s for sure.”