Senate Dems stay up all night to talk warming — but moderates are notably absent

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thirty members of the Senate Democratic caucus sacrificed sleep last night to make the case to supporters outside the Beltway that momentum is building again for climate change legislation — if only they will help stoke it.

Senators took turns throughout the evening and into this morning addressing an often-empty Senate chamber on the cost of man-made warming to their home states, the state of the science, and the ability of the American economy to decarbonize without fulfilling opponents’ predictions that it will shed jobs. The debate, which began at about 6:30 p.m., is set to conclude after 8 a.m. today.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), co-chairman of the newly formed Senate Climate Action Task Force, told reporters before the night began that they should not expect any announcements about legislation. Instead, he said, the more than 14-hour event would help lay the groundwork for a future legislative push.

“It’s about showing the environmental community, young people around the country, and frankly, anybody paying attention about climate change that the Senate is starting to stir,” he said.

Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration retreated from discussing climate change legislation after efforts to pass a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill failed in 2010, Whitehouse said.

“We want to show loud and clear that those days are over,” he said on a call sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters. He said the night’s goal was “to go forward to build a political coalition that will make a climate bill inevitable.”

Whitehouse acknowledged, however, that carbon legislation is not inevitable yet despite public support for action. If Democrats brought a bill to the floor now he predicted it would fail.

“Tonight will show that the politics are ready,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who as a congressman saw his cap-and-trade bill with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) clear the House, only to die in the Senate. “There is a real commitment in the Senate to reflect what the country believes about this issue,” Markey said on the same call.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who coordinated the event, said the urgency of the issue begged for the Senate’s attention.

“The real question is: Why haven’t we done this sooner, and perhaps more pointedly, where is everybody else?” he said. “Why isn’t every single member of our body down here to have a discussion about climate change?”

The event won raves from environmentalists. The Sierra Club thanked participants by bringing coffee to their offices, while an action group associated with the Natural Resources Defense Council tweeted pictures of Whitehouse dressed as a member of French electronic band Daft Punk, with a caption stating, “He’s up all night for the Climate.”

White House adviser John Podesta tweeted his encouragement, blasting “climate deniers” who have “closed their eyes (and minds) to what’s happening to the planet.”

But more than two-thirds of the chamber didn’t participate in last night’s event. And the list of participants left room for doubt that support for climate legislation has broadened much in the years since cap and trade dropped from the Senate’s agenda.

Most of last night’s roster represented the liberal wing of the Senate Democratic caucus, and many of the speakers have sought legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions for decades. Notably absent from the event were the chamber’s moderate Democratic members and the handful of Republicans who have collaborated on climate change legislation in the past, and whose support would likely be needed in the future.

Senate Democrats from manufacturing and coal states went missing, though some said they had opted to skip the event because of scheduling conflicts rather than ideological concerns. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he had been asked to attend but already had evening plans.

Senators from fossil fuel-heavy states were also largely unrepresented, though Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) took a turn to discuss the role he said clean coal technology could play in allowing his state’s mining industry to survive in a carbon-constrained environment.

But Democrats locked in tight races for re-election this year were not present, including Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has introduced legislation to strictly limit U.S. EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, said he would have offered his views last night if his colleagues had asked him to.

“I would be happy to participate if they would want me to,” he said.

Manchin faces an uphill battle of his own in shepherding his bill through the Senate. He said he talked Friday with Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who sponsored the House version of the bill, which cleared the lower chamber last week. He is now talking to his fellow moderate Democrats, he said, in effort to map a way forward in the Senate.

Asked which senators were backing the measure, Manchin replied, “Lots of them. I can’t remember their names, there are so many.” No Democrats have said yet that they support the measure.

Moderate Republicans, meanwhile, said they were also not invited to participate in last night’s event.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the few members of her caucus who have not expressed doubt about the link between human emissions and climate change, said she was not contacted by the event’s coordinators.

“None of them approached me. Not in any way. This is clearly a partisan exercise tonight,” she said.

Collins introduced legislation with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in 2010 to price carbon dioxide and refund most of the revenue to citizens.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she, too, was not on the guest list.

“I have a really great speech that I’ve been working on this weekend,” she said, adding that she had hoped to give it earlier in the afternoon. It “speaks to energy issues and weaves climate change in brilliantly.”

While the Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member has backed legislation to prevent U.S. EPA from regulating heat-trapping emissions, she has also said they play a role in driving warming and collaborated on a bill with then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) in 2006.

“I don’t think what you’re going to hear tonight is policy,” she said. “I think it’s going to be more theater.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who negotiated a cap-and-trade proposal in 2010 with then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), said that Democrats would not pass legislation by playing to their base. Compromise would be part of any proposal with legs, he said.

“I’m still in the camp of I don’t mind looking at ways to clean up the air, but you’ve got to couple it with more exploration,” he said. But Graham, who backed away from the Kerry-Lieberman effort before it was introduced, made it clear that foreign policy is his priority now.

“I think the greatest threat to global warming is the Iranians getting a nuke,” he said.

Skunk at the garden party?

One Republican did speak on the Senate floor last night, though he was not invited by the organizers.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), perhaps the chamber’s most vocal climate skeptic, carved out a half-hour early in the debate to offer a litany of oft-repeated arguments for why the science of man-made climate change has been discredited. He pointed to the so-called Climategate controversy, an episode in late 2009 when emails from climate change researchers were stolen from computers at the University of East Anglia in England. Inhofe said again that they showed that scientists had “either covered up data that didn’t tell the story they wanted everyone to hear or exaggerated the impacts of the changing climate to drive people out of fear into action.”

Whitehouse noted in subsequent remarks that the researchers were cleared of all wrongdoing after several investigations and that climate science is based on multiple streams of evidence.

Inhofe also pointed to the cold temperatures of this winter to cast doubt on the science of climate change, but Schatz dismissed that argument later as “profoundly unserious.”

“Snowstorms are weather,” he said. “Weather is not climate.”

While weather is experienced over a short period of time, Schatz noted, climate is shown in long-term trends across regions. And measurements of surface temperature show that the climate is warming.

“This is not difficult to distinguish among adults,” he said.

Many of the Democrats who spoke early in the evening took aim at fossil fuels backers, who they said were stoking false controversy about the cause of climate change.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) repeated a charge he has made several times before that climate denial is being financed by industrial backers with deep pockets, including the billionaire owners of Koch Industries.

“It’s time to stop acting like those who ignore this crisis — for example, the oil baron Koch brothers and their allies in Congress — have a valid point of view,” Reid said in his remarks opening the debate. “They don’t.”

He pointed to an uptick in droughts, wildfires and more frequent storms in regions across the country to make his point.

Whitehouse said earlier in the day that Republicans who once championed action on climate change have backed away from those views in part because Citizens United had allowed fossil fuels interests to spend unlimited sums punishing lawmakers who voted against their interests.

He was kinder to Democrats who have shied away from climate legislation.

“There are no climate deniers in the Senate Democratic caucus,” he said.

But he added that Democrats, too, needed to hear that businesses in their home states are preparing to respond to climate change and wanted them to pay attention to it. Retail giant Wal-Mart has incorporated climate change into its operations, a fact that might prove helpful in convincing Pryor, the company’s home state senator, to back certain policies, he said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said yesterday afternoon that he hoped to get some sleep before reporting to the floor at 4 a.m. to give his remarks.

Murphy acknowledged that the evening would include few new ideas and change few minds inside the Beltway. But he said it was worthwhile taking the message on climate change directly to the American people.

“If we don’t push back against the nonsense of the climate deniers, people are going to accept their arguments more readily,” he said. “At some point, after years of beating your head up against the wall inside this building, you’ve got to go outside this building to get public support.”