Coming soon: environment panel’s big makeover

Source: Arianna Skibell and Robin Bravender, E&E reporters • Posted: Friday, October 7, 2016

The Senate’s oddest couple is about to break up.

Back in 2007, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe were paired for the first time as their parties’ leaders on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. They represent nearly perfect opposites.

She’s a liberal Democrat born in Brooklyn and representing California, with a passion for combating climate change. He’s an oil patch Republican from Oklahoma who penned a book calling global warming “the greatest hoax.”

Since then, they’ve been known for their public sparring on environmental issues, although they’ve forged an unlikely friendship over the years. They’ve been the EPW Committee’s leaders ever since (apart from a two-year stint from 2013 until 2015 when Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana was the ranking member), and they’ve set the tone for the Senate’s often-contentious environmental showdowns.

“Their relationship has been the fulcrum of the committee for so long,” said Jeremy Symons, associate vice president of climate political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund and a former EPW Democratic staffer.

That’s all about to change.

The EPW Committee promises to have new leadership next year with Boxer retiring and Inhofe up against GOP term limits on his time as both chairman and ranking member. How the leadership shakeup will play out is still uncertain. The final committee roster will depend on which party wins control of the Senate in November as well as where lawmakers want to exert their seniority. But every possible scenario will mean a very different committee starting in 2017.

For some, the Boxer-Inhofe era will be something to look back on nostalgically. But others welcome the change.

“While they will be missed to some extent, I think people will be happy with a new regime,” said a former Republican EPW staffer.

Boxer and Inhofe butting heads “has frozen the committee for years,” and new leadership “may promise an ability to try to tackle those harder issues,” said Tim Profeta, director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and a onetime aide to former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent.

New regime: Carper-Capito? Barrasso-Sanders?

Next up in the Democrats’ line of succession: Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). It’s possible that he would want to keep the top Democratic post on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, but many sources suspect he’ll opt for the EPW slot.

When asked recently about his options for next year, Carper offered E&E News a lengthy story about the dangers of “spiking the football.”

He said, “I’m a big believer in don’t spike the football. I’m also a big believer, don’t hold the ball up before you’re in the end zone. So when the elections are over, we’ll settle down, we’ll make some serious decisions. I think it’s still just a little bit early.”

Carper noted that he’s been chairman of two EPW subcommittees. “I have a lot of interest,” he said. “I love being chairman and ranking member of Homeland Security. … It’s actually two good choices, so I’m lucky.”

If Carper doesn’t take the EPW seat, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin is next in line, although he has the top Democratic spot on the Foreign Relations Committee (at least while New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez is still facing bribery and corruption charges). If Carper and Cardin were out of the running, it could pave the way for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to take the Democrats’ top EPW position.

On the Republican side, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) appears poised to become EPW chairman if the GOP controls the chamber. If Republicans lose Senate control, Barrasso is expected to become the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the current chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), is facing term limits as ranking member. If Murkowski loses her re-election bid in November, however, Barrasso could also potentially become chairman of that committee. Murkowski is, however, strongly favored for re-election.

Barrasso, who is now the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he’d be interested in the EPW gavel.

“My goal is to make sure we maintain the majority, so we maintain the chairmanships, so by the way it’s set out, I’d be in the situation where I could consider that or Indian Affairs Committee chairman,” he said. “But I’m very interested in Environment and Public Works, it has a big impact on our state.”

If the Democrats take the Senate majority and Barrasso becomes ranking member of the Energy panel, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is expected to be the top Republican on EPW.

While Inhofe is vacating his post as top dog, he plans to stick around as a subcommittee chairman if Republicans maintain Senate control. Which subcommittee remains unknown, as a new chairman could create different subcommittees from those currently in place. Sources expect any subcommittee Inhofe might head to reflect some of his priorities like infrastructure and U.S. EPA oversight.

‘World War III’

EPW members have praised the partnership of Boxer and Inhofe on the committee, noting in particular the productive stint they’ve had in shepherding through a highway bill, a massive chemical safety overhaul and a $9 billion water projects measure.

Recently, it’s “been the most productive legislative committee in the Senate,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the panel.

But when it comes to polarizing environmental issues, it’s a different story.

Members are often able to work across the aisle on infrastructure issues, said EDF’s Symons. “Then there’s the environmental side, which is World War III. … The chance of moving thoughtful environmental legislation through the committee is very challenging.”

Former lawmakers and committee aides point to major battles over climate change legislation early in the Obama administration, air pollution policy fights during the George W. Bush administration and brawls over agency nominees as some of the most heated disputes the EPW Committee has endured in recent years.

Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who is now a Democrat but was a Republican until he left the Senate in 2007, served on the EPW Committee when Inhofe was chairman. He said in a recent interview that it’s likely the most polarized panel in the chamber. Before Inhofe took the gavel in 2003, EPW was led by Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who flipped from Republican to independent in 2001 and then caucused with the Democrats. Prior to that, former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) and Chafee’s father, former Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) — both environmental moderates — had been chairmen.

“Having Sen. Inhofe probably dug in, deepened the divide,” Lincoln Chafee said.

Some also attribute the committee’s divisions to geography.

“Every Democrat is from a coastal state,” said John Stoody, a former aide to ex-Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) who now works at the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. “All the Republicans are from the heartland.” That means their constituents have different ideas about energy and land-use management, he added.

Among conservatives, Boxer has a reputation as a hard-line environmentalist who can be reluctant to compromise or listen to industry’s perspective.

She enraged her critics on the right, for example, when she plowed ahead in 2009 with a committee vote on climate legislation despite a Republican boycott. But Republicans followed suit under Inhofe’s leadership in 2015, holding a vote on legislation to pull the plug on EPA climate policies after the committee’s Democrats walked out of the markup (E&ENews PM, Aug. 5, 2015).

Under Boxer’s EPW leadership, there was a working assumption that any Republican bill was “not going to get a hearing,” said the former Republican staffer.

Meanwhile, many on the left hail Boxer as an environmental champion who has worked behind the scenes to fend off legislative attacks on environmental efforts.

Something that “people aren’t aware of is how much work Sen. Boxer and committee staff have done over the years to head off the onslaught of Republican attacks on the EPA,” Symons said. “It was a role that Sen. Boxer filled uniquely well, and somebody needs to step up to that. Whoever the chairman is, that will be a key part of their responsibility.”

Return to ‘bipartisan roots’?

Some lawmakers say the issues are so divisive, it won’t matter much who’s in charge.

“Some of the debate gets pretty heated. But these are big issues, so I don’t expect it to change,” said Capito.

Whitehouse said the committee’s divisions “have a lot to do with the political clout of the fossil fuel industry, and the things that they’re demanding are unreasonable. I think that’s kind of a fundamental fault that doesn’t go away. There may be different approaches to how you try to negotiate across that, but that’s a pretty significant fault line.”

Still, Whitehouse said, “I think every time you get a change in chairs and ranking members, it influences the committee.”

Along with new members in charge will come a spate of new staffers working beneath them. Boxer’s top committee aide, Bettina Poirier, has been a stalwart on the EPW staff for years, having started as Boxer’s senior counsel as 2005 (after a previous stint on the California Democrat’s staff from 2001 until 2002).

The biggest possible change on EPW could come from Carper replacing Boxer in the top Democratic slot, said a number of sources on both sides of the aisle.

On the Republican side, Barrasso or Capito taking over for Inhofe isn’t seen as likely to shift the tone much on the right.

Barrasso, for instance, is “very, very conservative, so anyone expecting much of a change there is going to be disappointed,” said Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Inhofe has a 5 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters; Barrasso’s score is 9 percent and Capito’s is 18 percent. Barrasso and Capito are “both pretty much in lockstep on the issues,” said another former EPW Republican staffer.

Carper, on the other hand, is viewed as more moderate on environmental issues than Boxer. And while he’s still seen as far to the left of Republicans on the committee, there’s a sense he’s more willing to compromise.

Carper has an 81 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, compared with Boxer’s 91 percent.

An EPW headed by Carper could allow the committee to “return to its bipartisan roots,” said Profeta at Duke University. “His approach is much more one of trying to find a compromise space than Sen. Boxer’s has been.”

Carper and Boxer bring two “very different personalities” to the table, said Advanced Energy Economy Vice President Arvin Ganesan, a former EPA official and onetime aide to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). “Sen. Carper, I think, is always interested in hearing a lot of different perspectives and is always looking for a deal, for a collaboration across the aisle.” Boxer “has a very strong alignment with the environmental community, but she has also shown the ability to work across the aisle.”

A Boxer-to-Carper shift “might not change all the substance … but certainly changes the tone of the committee and how the committee itself would approach some of these thornier issues,” Ganesan said.