Yesterday, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) announced the creation of a Climate Action Task Force in the Senate for "going on the offensive" on the issue and building momentum for action. The Climate Action Task Force, which consists of 12 Democrats so far per Boxer, will launch officially next Tuesday. The Task Force's activities will include public events, floor speeches, and increased engagement with outside partners like religious organizations and businesses.
Boxer said that the Task Force will focus more on general advocacy than on specific legislation but that it could help build momentum on bills on fuel economy, alternative fuels, and fuel efficiency. Boxer said that she does not know whether the Task Force will take a stance on the Keystone XL pipeline--even though she herself strongly opposes it. Frankly, the Task Force seems pretty hollow if it won't commit to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.
The creation of "task forces" in the Senate on this issue is not new. On January 24th of last year, Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse announced the creation of a Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change.
Last year also featured stillborn efforts by Senate Democrats at drumming up support for climate action.
Eleven months ago, Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders introduced comprehensive climate legislation in the form of a pair of bills--the Climate Protection Act and the Sustainable Energy Act. Their legislation would impose a fee on carbon pollution emissions. Some of the revenue would be returned to consumers as rebates to offset any price increases they might incur ("fee and dividend"), and some of the revenue would go to significant investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. In their press conference on February 14, 2013, they were joined by Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org; Mike Brune, executive director of Sierra Club; Tara McGuiness, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund; Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen’s energy director; and Meg Power of the National Community Action Foundation.
Since their referral to committee, the companion bills have lain dormant.
A month later, Reps. Henry Waxman and Earl Blumenauer and Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz released draft carbon pricing legislation for feedback from stakeholder groups and the public. No formal legislation has yet to be introduced.
If the new Task Force can get the media to talk about climate change more, then great. However, calling legislation a long shot would be generous.
Let's look at the roadblocks in the Senate.
Any legislation would have to pass the EPW Committee first.
The eight Republicans on EPW are uniformly hostile to climate action:
David Vitter (R-LA)
Jim Inhofe (R-OK)
John Barrasso (R-WY)
Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Mike Crapo (R-ID)
Roger Wicker (R-MS)
John Boozman (R-AK)
Deb Fischer (R-NE)
Let’s look at the 10 members of the Democratic caucus:
Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Max Baucus (D-MT)
Tom Carper (D-DE)
Ben Cardin (D-MD)
Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Tom Udall (D-NM)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
Cory Booker (D-NJ)
The Senate took a few relevant votes during the budget vote-a-rama last March.
Jim Inhofe introduced an amendment to prohibit the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. It failed 47 to 52.
Thankfully, no committee members voted for it.
Sheldon Whitehouse offered an amendment in support of carbon pricing, which failed 41 to 58.
There was one vote from the committee: Max Baucus.
Roy Blunt (R-MO) offered an amendment to require a point of order against any carbon pricing legislation. It failed 53 to 46.
There was one vote from the committee: Max Baucus.
John Hoeven (R-ND) offered an amendment in support of the Keystone XL pipeline. It passed 62 to 37.
Two members of the committee voted for it: Max Baucus and Tom Carper.
Boxer offered an amendment herself to protect US interests in making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline. It failed 33 to 66.
Three members of the committee voted against it: Baucus, Carper, and Udall.
In four out of five climate-related votes, Max Baucus cast the environmentally unfriendly vote. Let us assume, then, that he will likely oppose any climate legislation in EPW. The vote then becomes a 9-9 tie, and the legislation dies.
However, Max Baucus may not be in the Senate for much longer if the confirmation process for his appointment to US ambassador to China goes quickly. Let’s make the assumption (a very unlikely one) that the interim senator that Governor Steve Bullock appoints is willing to vote for said climate legislation, and the legislation passes Committee.
It would then go to the full Senate.
Let’s look at the votes again. The Inhofe amendment to prohibit EPA regulation of greenhouse gases won the support of Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Mark Pryor (D-AR). Susan Collins (R-ME) was the bill’s sole Republican opponent.
In other words, a climate bill—even a weak one—would likely begin with a ceiling of 53 votes.
But there are a number of other votes that would be far from guaranteed. Max Baucus (D-MT), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Claire McCaskill (R-MO), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) joined the aforementioned three climate unfriendly coal-and/or-oil state Democrats in supporting the requirement for a point of order against carbon pricing legislation. Susan Collins joined her fellow Republicans here as well.
That puts a possible ceiling of 47 votes.
And I haven’t even looked at the Energy Committee yet, another place where legislation could originate. That Committee has 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin are two of those Democrats. All climate-related legislation is DOA.
By all means, Democrats should bring more attention to climate. Talking about it more can help make the public view it as more of a priority. But legislation isn't going anywhere.