Why Democrats forced a failed climate vote in the Senate

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2019

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The GOP-controlled Senate voted Thursday to keep a Trump administration regulation on coal-fired power plants that environmentalists and congressional Democrats alike repeatedly have decried as too weak.

So why did Senate Democrats force the vote in the first place?

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) did so to make some Senate Republicans squirm — and to make sure he remains Democratic leader as his party seeks to regain control of the chamber next year.

“We would like to win. Make no mistake about it,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who sponsored the resolution with Schumer, told reporters Thursday. “But if we don’t challenge the other side to put their votes on the board, they could always hide behind the fact that, gee, there was no opportunity.”

In a 53-to-41 vote largely along party lines, the Senate rejected a measure to throw out the rule on climate-warming emissions from power plants finalized earlier this year by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. The agency’s Affordable Clean Energy rule cuts carbon emissions from the electricity sector by less than half of what experts say is needed to avoid catastrophic global warming. And it replaced the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which sought more aggressive limits on carbon emissions in a way that would have forced companies to switch from coal to lower-carbon energy sources.

With the ink is still drying on the final version of the EPA rule, Schumer turned to a little-used legislative tool to force a vote to repeal the regulation. The Congressional Review Act gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to review, and potentially reject, new rulemaking from federal agencies.

But it was always unlikely that Schumer, with only 47 Democratic senators, had the votes to win. Only GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who is up for election in 2020 in Maine, decided to join Democrats and vote for repeal. Meanwhile, three Democrats — Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin III  (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — all switched sides and voted with Republicans.

But by pushing for the vote, even a losing one, Schumer showed he is willing to go on offense on climate change — an issue of increasing importance both for fellow Senate Democrats and, according to recent polling, the party’s voting base.

Under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate has taken few if any votes on stand-alone climate measures. That has given voters a scant legislative record to consider when it comes to an issue that many young voters see as their generation’s greatest challenge.

“This vote is all the more important for illuminating” senators’ stances, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, which said it will likely include the vote in its annual environmental scorecard.

Already, Democrats in Colorado, once a swing state that runs blue in presidential elections, are using the vote to attack the state’s junior senator, Cory Gardner, who is one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020. “Senator Gardner has tried to hide his toxic environmental record, but his actual votes override his phony rhetoric,” Morgan Carroll, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said in a statement Thursday.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, spent the day decrying the Obama-era coal rule as economically disastrous, especially for coal-producing states. “The jewel on the war on coal’s crown was always the Clean Power Plan,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said on the Senate floor.

The use of the Congressional Review Act to try to undo regulations is a new tactic by congressional Democrats. But it is one first dusted off by McConnell, who in 2017 successfully used it more than a dozen times to overturn Obama-era regulations, including ones protecting waterways from coal-mining pollution and banning wolves in parts of Alaska from being hunted in their dens.

Before that, the Congressional Review Act had only been successfully used one other time, in 2001.

Now Schumer is teeing up similar CRA votes on rules regarding preexisting medical conditions and state and local taxes.