Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night

Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night

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In symbolic move, Congress votes to gut Obama climate plans

Congress has voted, largely along party lines, to block a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda. The votes are largely symbolic, however, because Obama plans to veto the bills. Still, Congressional Republicans, and a few Democrats, say they want to send a message to global leaders who are meeting this week to negotiate a new climate agreement that the majority of U.S. lawmakers may not agree with any deal.

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved two measures that would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) first-ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing and new power plants. The votes came 2 weeks after the Senate approved the same two measures, S.J. Res. 23 and S.J. Res. 24.

“The message could not be more clear that Republicans and Democrats in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House do not support the president’s climate agenda and the international community should take note,” Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

“As we know, the president and other leaders are meeting in France as we speak here today. They’re speaking in generalities; they’re not being detailed in their plans,” Representative Ed Whitfield (R–KY), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee, said on the House floor before the votes. Republicans, and a few Democrats, have charged that any deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions will drive up energy prices and cost jobs.

Double-barreled attack

The legislative measures represent one of two lines of attack that Republicans are now using to thwart the president’s climate policies. In Congress, they are attempting to use the lawmaking process to undermine the new regulations under the Clean Air Act. At the same time, a number of states, industry groups, and companies have taken the fight to the courts, asking judges to overturn EPA’s rules for new power plants. The lawsuits, however, are still pending and won’t be resolved before climate negotiations in Paris finish.

At issue is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which includes two EPA regulations that are the first ever to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. One regulation sets limits for carbon dioxide emissions from new and future power plants. The other, which became effective in August, sets similar limits on existing power plants, though it offers a menu of options—ranging from energy-efficiency measures to renewable energy to emissions trading—that states can use to achieve the emissions limits. The power plan seeks to cut CO2 emissions from the power sector—which accounts for one-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions—by 30% from 2005 levels by 2025.

The White House has said it will veto the congressional measures, saying in a statement that they threaten “the health and economic welfare of future generations by blocking important standards to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector that take a flexible, common sense approach to addressing carbon pollution.”

The measures make use of a parliamentary tool under the Congressional Review Act that lawmakers can use to overturn regulations. Known as “resolutions of disapproval,” they differ from normal bills in that they can’t face filibusters in the Senate. That means that they only require a simple-majority support to clear the Senate instead of 60 votes.

The GOP-controlled Senate acted first. Although S.J. Res. 24 and S.J. Res 23 had bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate, they ultimately passed the upper chamber almost solely with Republican support, on votes of 52 to 46 each in mid-November. Then, yesterday evening, the GOP-controlled House passed S.J. Res. 24, the regulation for existing power plants, on a 242 to 180 vote. S.J. Res. 23, the regulation for new power plants, passed on a 235-188 vote. Just a handful of Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the measures.

Fierce reaction

Nongovernmental groups and Democrats lashed out at Republicans, saying that the GOP was wasting time on measures that have no chance of becoming law and are at odds with the warnings of climate scientists.

“Once again Republicans are attempting to stop any action by this administration to reduce carbon emissions, and once again the opponents of EPA’s regulations have no constructive alternative to offer,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D–NJ), top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on the House floor before the votes.

Republican lawmakers claimed that they weren’t denying climate science, but fighting back against the Obama administration’s misplaced focus on climate change. “No one on our side of the aisle has denied climate change, but I think we still live in a country where we all can express our views,” Whitfield said on the House floor. “And we simply disagree with the president on the urgency of the issue.”

The resolutions enjoyed strong support from business groups and energy industries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote in a letter to lawmakers that the Clean Air Act “was never intended to regulate carbon dioxide, and it remains poorly designed for such a task … The impact these rules will have on power prices means they will inevitably have negative implications extending to nearly every segment of the economy.”

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, expressed hope that the GOP and industry’s “attempts to distract the world” and undermine climate negotiations in Paris would fall flat. “They are wasting everyone’s time and the ink in President Obama’s veto pen,” she said in a statement. “It’s not going to work.”

Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Climate and Energy Program at the Washington, D.C.–based Union of Concerned Scientists, said GOP leaders were essentially playing Grinch as Christmas looms on the horizon, “bah humbugging all attempts at international cooperation and constructive solutions to a very serious problem.” He also quipped that they were going beyond what the Grinch did. “In the end, the Grinch saw the fallacies of his ways,” he said in a statement.