GOP avoids showdown over EPA climate change rules

Source: By ELANA SCHOR, Politico • Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, has a quick word with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, left, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., sponsor of the Keystone XL pipeline bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, after winning a critical procedural vote on the measure. The Republican-controlled Senate moved toward passage of a bipartisan bill approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, getting enough votes to overcome a filibuster, 62-35, but it remains five votes short of a veto-proof majority. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), left, isn’t picking a fight on climate change just yet. | AP Photo

Republicans’ aggressive energy agenda has so far conspicuously sidestepped one of their biggest campaign-trail targets: the climate change rules from President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency.

The House GOP plans to steer clear of a showdown over the greenhouse gas rules in a broad energy package that it will unveil this week, raising questions about whether Republicans are grasping for a workable plan to stop the carbon dioxide regulations that EPA will issue later this year.

In the Senate, GOP leaders avoided a fight over Obama’s climate change rules during January’s long debate over Keystone XL pipeline.

And Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose panel is in charge of EPA funding, has vowed to push a new energy bill that’s “not a messaging” exercise, a comment that suggests she won’t pick a political fight over climate change just yet — though she also has additional leverage over EPA given her leading role in writing the agency’s spending bill.

One GOP source with knowledge of the party’s strategy said there is “an obvious lack of enthusiasm among Republican staff, and maybe members, too, to do something on” the power-plant emissions rules that EPA is set to finalize this summer. “There’s not a lot of ‘yay, I’m superexcited’ on this.”

In public, however, Republicans vow that they’re committed to fighting what they have long savaged as Obama’s “war on coal.”

A spokeswoman for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan, who left the emissions rules out of his massive new bill, wrote via email that “in addition to this energy package, we plan to move forward with an aggressive agenda to address EPA’s overreach.”

The new EPA rules would set carbon dioxide targets for states, requiring them to submit plans to trim emissions of the gas blamed for changing the planet’s climate. And they would set tight limits on pollution from new power plants that could prevent any new coal-fired generation from being built.

EPA’s timing for releasing their rules may be the biggest reason for Republicans’ go-slow approach.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma have cited the Congressional Review Act — which successfully stopped one executive-branch regulation in 2001 — as a viable method for undercutting EPA. But an attack using CRA would have to wait until the emissions rules are final later this year.

Whether through stand-alone legislation or the CRA, any congressional challenge to EPA is likely to draw a presidential veto. While Republicans have also warned they would use the government funding process to cripple the Obama climate rule, that could trigger a showdown with the White House over who would take the blame for shutting down the agency.

And the current impasse over Department of Homeland Security funding that is tied to conservative anger over Obama’s immigration policy holds a lesson for the GOP: Even Senate Democrats who may share their desire to defang EPA and its climate agenda can’t be counted on to support a funding bill that would force policy changes on the president.

“No matter the issue, if the Republicans threaten to shut down all or part of the government unless they get their way, Democrats and, more importantly, the American people overwhelmingly reject it,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

“Trying to put us in a box only strengthens the resolve of our members, no matter if it’s on Obamacare, immigration, the EPA or anything else. If they try it again on EPA, they’ll find out that the third time isn’t the charm,” the aide added.

What’s more, Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, doesn’t appear to be enthusiastic about challenging the EPA power plant rules in her broad energy bill that will address issues from opening new areas to oil and gas exploration to strengthening the nation’s power grid.

The Alaskan, who is also the top appropriator for EPA and the Interior Department, predicted she would spend “a lot of time” this year trying to navigate attempts “to load this particular bill with a lot of clever ideas.”

“We are going to be working aggressively every step of the way to put together a bill that’s responsive and is something we can gain support for passage [of] — not a messaging bill, but support for passage,” Murkowski told reporters on Thursday. The newest member of her EPA spending panel is McConnell, who cruised to reelection in November with a promise to defend the coal industry from the tighter regulations proposed by the Obama administration.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said the Alaskan would work with McConnell and others on a bill that meaningfully reins in what Republicans slam as across-the-board regulatory overreach by EPA and the Interior Department. “Her goal is not to wind up with a presidential veto, however, as that would only perpetuate the status quo and allow their actions to stand uncontested,” Dillon said by email. “She is already working to put together a bill that the president will have no choice but to sign — because enough members of the Senate are convinced of its merits.”

But rhetoric aside, the path for opponents to challenge the EPA rules is far from clear.

“I don’t believe the Hill has settled in on a strategy,” said Tom Pyle, president of the industry-backed American Energy Alliance. After EPA finishes its rule, he added, “I’m sure Sen. McConnell will want to move on the CRA, and, notwithstanding Sen. Murkowski’s comments, there is going to be an attempt” to use spending bills to try to halt the power-plant regulations.

The GOP source with knowledge of the party’s EPA strategy agreed with Pyle on one thing: “I don’t think anybody’s got the right answer yet” on the best way to undercut the EPA regulations.

At the moment, the source added, House Republicans are “skittering away from anything controversial because they want to get Democrats.”

Aside from the DHS funding fight, Republicans’ struggle to unify behind an idea to fulfill the second half of their “repeal and replace” mantra on Obamacare also signals the party’s challenge in taking on EPA.

One troubling omen for the GOP: Several Republicans voted for measures backing climate change science during last month’s Keystone XL debate, and five agreed with Democrats that humans “significantly” affect the climate.

Those votes chipped away at the party’s rhetorical wall on the issue, and gave greens hope they can challenge the GOP on industrial pollution.

Republicans are realizing “that just being against something starts wearing very thin, but actually figuring out what to do” is another, bigger challenge, Natural Resources Defense Council government affairs director David Goldston said.

“If you’re going to have an alternative, you have to have unity to do it,” Goldston added. “They’ve got too many hard-liners who don’t want to do anything.”

Although Goldston said he had “a feeling that [Republicans] are on the ropes, both procedurally and substantively,” neither he nor fellow environmentalist Tiernan Sittenfeld expect Republicans to end their quest to block Obama’s emissions rules for power plants.

“I’d like to think the Republican leadership has finally gotten the message that blocking the EPA’s common-sense proposal to protect public health by cutting carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants is widely out of step with what their constituents want,” said Sittenfeld, senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. “But if past is prologue, it’s probably just a matter of time before they try again.”