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POLITICO Pro: Senate climate vote not ready for prime time
March 17, 2011

Posted by Matt Dempsey Matt_Dempsey@epw.senate.gov

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POLITICO Pro

Senate climate vote not ready for prime time

By Darren Samuelsohn and Robin Bravender

3/16/11 9:08 PM EDT

A Senate showdown over the Obama administration's climate change agenda appears like it will have to wait for another day.

After maneuvering behind closed doors for a second consecutive day Wednesday, Democratic and Republican leaders conceded they'll probably punt on floor debate on an amendment to kill the EPA's pending greenhouse gas rules, as well as a less aggressive alternative, until after next week's recess.

Both sides of the climate policy debate have said all week that they want the Senate to vote on the anti-EPA amendment sponsored by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jim Inhofe, Congress' most outspoken skeptic on global warming science.

But with whip counts shifting by the hour and several alternative proposals under consideration, neither party's leaders were willing to pull the trigger on a vote.

"They're putting their toe in the water," said Frank Maisano, an energy industry spokesman at Bracewell & Giuliani. "And if you're the majority leader, you can easily pull your toe out of the water if you don't like how it feels."

Like cap-and-trade advocates have done over the past decade, the anti-EPA Republican crowd argued that a roll call now would help create momentum toward an eventual victory.

Republican sponsors acknowledge that they don't yet have 60 supporters necessary to get their amendment tacked onto the small-business bill, but they still want the vote to put moderate in-cycle Democrats on the record about the Obama administration's energy and environmental policies.

"I do expect voters to hold people accountable for their votes, and that would be a point of contrast, I would imagine," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas.

In a nod to several senators from industrial states where EPA's policies can be unpopular, Democratic leaders are considering an additional floor vote on an alternative from Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that would delay the Obama administration's climate rules for two years.

Rockefeller wasn't at the Capitol on Wednesday because of a family medical issue, which several lawmakers said was among the reasons little got accomplished on the EPA front.

With the specific legislative text in limbo, a half-dozen Democrats refused Wednesday to say how they will vote, including Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jim Webb of Virginia.

"It depends on what else is up at the same time," McCaskill said. "Obviously, I'd vote for Rockefeller because I'm a co-sponsor. But I'm disappointed at some of the provisions in McConnell."

Other lawmakers were more definitive that they'd vote against the McConnell amendment, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said he opposed the McConnell approach but told POLITICO it was "possible" he would support Rockefeller.

"I don't want us to just delay; I want to see us find a way to do this right," Brown said. "I want the EPA rules, I want to do them, I want them to work. But so far, we haven't found a way."

Like several of her Democratic colleagues, McCaskill also deflected suggestions that her position would come back to haunt her in 2012.

"I'm sure that the sun coming up the Republicans are going to use against me," she said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he'd likely vote for both the McConnell and Rockefeller proposals.

For Republicans, this week's EPA standoff demonstrates that they are quite capable of forcing an uncomfortable floor debate on climate policy even though Democrats have no plans to bring up related issues through regular order.

Inhofe said he planned to keep bringing up his anti-EPA plan as an amendment on future pieces of legislation. He also took aim at the Rockefeller alternative, calling it "a cover vote for those people who don't want to go home and say ‘I'm responsible for the EPA putting everyone out of business.'"

"If they get cover this time, they won't the next time," Inhofe said. "It'll be more difficult."

Indeed, Rockefeller's two-year delay has prompted plenty of speculation about the politics and the possible scenarios if the legislation did pick up 60 votes.

An industry lobbyist argued that Senate Democratic leaders have overplayed their hand by relying on Rockefeller's representation that he could keep most Republicans on board for his approach. More than 40 GOP senators have opted instead to support Inhofe's legislation, leaving Rockefeller with just a handful of centrist Democrats and four GOP co-sponsors.

"The middle has shifted on this issue, and while it may not be Inhofe, it is certainly something more than J-Rock," the industry source said.

Democrats also could wind up helping the anti-EPA cause if the Rockefeller amendment notched 60 votes and ended up attached to the small-business bill, a Senate GOP aide said. Under that scenario, the House could insert their own much more sweeping EPA bill in conference negotiations on the legislation, forcing another round of uncomfortable votes on the report in the Senate and setting up a veto showdown with the White House.

The House is expected to vote before the Easter break on its stand-alone version of anti-EPA legislation.

On Wednesday, lead sponsors Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) crossed the Capitol to strategize with aides to McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

"We're going to consider anything possible to obtain our objective, and that's to pass this legislation, so we're going to consider anything and everything," Whitfield, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce's Energy and Power Subcommittee, told POLITICO.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the lead sponsor of the small-business bill, said she didn't think McConnell's anti-EPA amendment was close to getting 60 votes, even though it had her support. But she acknowledged the Rockefeller approach could find a way into her measure, prompting it to become veto bait.

"That is a concern," she said. "There might be something we can work out as it moves through."

Darren Goode contributed to this report.

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