Dim GOP enthusiasm for cap-and-trade bill in 2009 even dimmer now

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E report • Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013

First in a two-part series on lessons learned from the 2009 “American Clean Energy and Security Act.”

The carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in June 2009 did so with scant Republican support — but if it came to the floor today, the GOP tally might be zero.

The five GOP supporters of the measure by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who are still roaming the halls of the Capitol — eight voted for it in total — are increasingly reluctant to talk about climate change with reporters. Three others are gone — one voluntarily, two because they lost elections.

Most of the survivors were unwilling to discuss their long-ago vote for this story. The exception was now-Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who was quick to say that it could never happen again. He sought to distance himself from the vote shortly after he made it, as he geared up to run for Senate in 2010

“I announced that I would oppose the legislation if it ever came up in the Senate,” he said during a brief interview recently on Capitol Hill.

Kirk said he experienced “a lot” of push-back following his vote, and called his experience with it “terrible.” Would Republicans someday offer a carbon-reduction plan of their own? “No,” he said.

Four other Waxman-Markey Republicans are still in the House: Washington’s Rep. Dave Reichert and Reps. Leonard Lance, Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith, all of New Jersey.

But their enthusiasm for action to address climate change appears to have waned fairly quickly following the vote. Reichert was the only House Republican to vote for a nonbinding House resolution stating that man-made climate change is occurring in 2011, but he joined all 236 members of his caucus that same year in voting to block U.S. EPA’s carbon regime.

Reichert has also said he would not support the idea of a carbon tax (E&E Daily, July 19, 2012).

Waxman-Markey contributed to former Delware Rep. Mike Castle’s Senate primary loss in 2010. Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California lost her re-election bid last year, while Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) resigned from the House a few months after the cap-and-trade vote and is now secretary of the Army.

Congressional Republicans’ support for action on climate change appears to have dwindled in the last four years even as the issue has rebounded in the polls — and despite a steady stream of extreme weather events that have raised questions in voters’ minds about their connection to human-caused emissions.

Supporters of climate action can even point to some evidence that Republicans outside the Beltway are taking a second look at man-made climate change. A survey released in April showed that slightly more than half of self-identified Republicans and GOP-leaning independents believe that climate change is happening, and 62 percent favor U.S. action to address warming despite any uncertainties about the science (Greenwire, April 3).

And a poll of New Jerseyans taken last month by Rutgers University and the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling showed that two-thirds of the residents from the home state of Lance, LoBiondo and Smith think that climate change is contributing to the damaging storms that have lashed their coastline in recent years, ranging from Hurricane Irene to Superstorm Sandy.

But David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University and director of the Eagleton Center, said that other changes to the political landscape since 2009 more than counteract any new public awareness of climate change.

Constituent pressure might not be enough to persuade the three Republicans from coastal New Jersey to back something like Waxman-Markey again if a future Democratic House brought it to the floor, he said. Part of the reason is that House seats aren’t won in the general election. Long before a Republican faces general election voters who might have issues like sea-level rise and coastal vulnerability on their minds, he or she must first win a primary — likely against a tea party-backed challenger — where support for climate action can only be a liability.

“Virtually every Republican is worried about being challenged from the right,” Redlawsk said.

Activists within the party have proved they can wage a primary battle against the most seasoned political figure if he or she goes astray on an important issue, he said.

And in most Garden State congressional districts, a primary win means a general election victory. Redistricting has left New Jersey’s congressional map with almost no districts where both parties can compete.

A similar dynamic seems to be working on the state’s top Republican, Gov. Chris Christie, who last week told reporters at a climate change adaptation dialogue at Rutgers that there isn’t “any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change.”

“I think it’s clearly Christie with his eye past New Jersey,” said Redlawsk. The moderate Republican turned off many within his own party last fall when he appeared with President Obama in the immediate aftermath of Sandy — days before the presidential election. Redlawsk said the likely 2016 White House contender seems eager now to put as much daylight between himself and climate change as possible.

Changing political dynamics

For his part, Reichert is now representing a suburban Seattle district that was rendered a little more Republican-friendly by the 2010 redistricting process, making him reluctant to talk much about climate change either way, despite hailing from a relatively pro-environment part of the country, said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a leading Republican moderate, who retired in 2008.

“He may get cross-pressured on these things now,” he said.

Even moderate Democrats who have left the House in recent years agree that elections have changed in ways that do not favor collaboration on many issues, especially divisive ones like climate change, Davis said.

“The constituencies that make up the parties now don’t really tolerate deviation, whether it’s on gun control or abortion,” he said.

Davis said that members are kept in line now more than even a few years ago because of the way their campaigns are financed.

Issue-based coalitions have become a stronger force in elections than ever before — even stronger than party organizations — and they expect candidates to toe the line on issues they care about, he said.

“The Koch Brothers will probably spend more than the National Republican Congressional Committee, and they’ll ambush you in a primary, which is where most of these guys win elections,” he said. “So there’s just no incentive to step out front.”

Castle, a longtime Delaware congressman and former governor who lost the 2010 GOP Senate primary to Christine O’Donnell, agreed that Republicans are likely to be thinking about primaries when they decide how to vote on something like cap and trade.

“They’ve seen people like me — and not just me but others — lose in primaries not solely because of this issue but maybe in part because of this issue,” he said.

“There are probably a lot of Republicans out there that might in regular circumstances be supportive, but they don’t need to invite a primary,” Castle said. “So they’re probably a little reluctant to be supportive of legislation that might address the problem [of climate change] or even supportive of the issues that might address the problem, because of some of the political opposition that they’d run into in their own party.”

And at a time when no climate change legislation is on the horizon, there is little need for any Republicans to go out on a limb on the issue now, he said.

The last four years have also seen the rise of ideologically driven super PACs and dark money groups that operate differently from traditional political action committees and leadership committees and with fewer restrictions, said the Campaign Legal Center’s policy director, Meredith McGehee.

PACs traditionally gave to candidates from both sides of the aisle, based on a pragmatic assessment of who was best positioned to move legislation or advance priorities based on leadership positions and committee assignments. But the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, which found that limiting private involvement in elections was unconstitutional, opened the door for much greater participation by wealthy donors and interest groups. These tend to give money only to like-minded candidates.

“Because there’s so much money involved, it pushes much of the debate out of the middle into the extremes,” McGehee said. There is limited public disclosure of who is funding the super PACs and dark money groups, but they appear to be mostly on the right end of the political spectrum, she said. A Republican candidate and his or her staff know that if they take a position that is at odds with these power players, they will be hit with more attack ads than they have the resources to respond to.

“It makes the politician stop and think twice, is this worth it?” McGehee said. “It’s like having a loaded gun to your head.”

Are Republicans embracing the science?

But some observers say they see a thawing in the Republican position on climate change this year. They point out that there have been fewer votes in the House so far this Congress to strike EPA rules.

David Jenkins, ConservAmerica vice president for government affairs, said that last November’s election results prompted soul-searching by Republicans on a host of issues, including climate change.

“We’re moving closer to in a direction where we can see solutions coming from both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Republicans like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made statements after Nov. 6 admonishing their party not to be anti-science or, in Jindal’s words, “the party of stupid.”

“When you hear someone complaining that the party is perceived as anti-science, I think it’s generally an allusion to the fact that the party hasn’t accepted things like the scientific consensus on climate change and things like that,” Jenkins said.

But Republicans are still wary of wading in too deep on an issue like climate change after the partisan battles over Waxman-Markey and EPA regulations, he said.

“The aftereffects of what happened the last couple of years have not completely worn off,” Jenkins said, but added “there’s more and more consensus that when there’s problems it’s better on the right to find competing solutions than it is to demonize things and hold them up.”

The upshot, according to Jenkins: “The head winds are not as strong as they were a year or two ago, but there definitely aren’t tail winds yet.”

Democratic dominance on issue gives GOP pause

Some of those head winds are blowing from the left, pro-environment Republicans say. Climate change has become an issue very closely associated with Democrats, making it difficult for Republicans to carve out a proactive position of their own.

Instead, would-be GOP climate change supporters must either block action or appear to be helping President Obama achieve one of his top agenda items — to the detriment of their own party.

“It’s probably easier to get something going with a Republican in the White House than a Democrat in the White House,” Jenkins said.

“The partisan politics unfortunately comes into play here, and not just what’s the best policy for the country,” he added.

Castle said he sees some evidence that Democrats might be trying to force Republicans to become the anti-climate change party by insisting on solutions to the problem that fly in the face of conservative values — like command-and-control regulations.

“If you want to pass Waxman-Markey to embarrass or use against Republicans, that’s one thing,” he said. “If you want to start to resolve this problem, maybe it’s time to sit down and try to see if there’s something in the middle, some solution that may not be everything that should be done or that some would want, but at least start the ball rolling.”

Then-Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) introduced a bill in 2010 that would have sought to curb emissions not by pricing them but through a host of efficiency, low-carbon and voluntary measures. A bipartisan group of senators also voted a bill out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that supporters said would have compelled many of the same actions that Waxman and Markey hoped to achieve, such as expanded renewable energy production.

But environmentalists saved their ammunition for a price on carbon.

Keith Gaby of the Environmental Defense Fund said that level of ambition made sense in the 111th Congress, when Democrats had finally captured both chambers and the White House.

“We’re looking back on it now and saying, ‘Couldn’t we have constructed a scenario where we would have gotten half a loaf?’” he said.

“But at the time: This is a crucially important problem, and you’re trying to establish a policy that really puts a limit on the pollution,” Gaby said. “To have decided early on that we’re going to abandon that attempt and go for something smaller would have been to somehow predict that it wasn’t going to work.”

But Castle said Democrats could have maximized their chances of getting true bipartisan support for a bill if they had forged deeper partnerships early on with more moderate Republicans.

From their place on the far left of the House political spectrum, Waxman and Markey may not have been the best ambassadors for bipartisan engagement, Castle said, and Republicans might have been more persuaded by moderates from their own ranks who had a hand in crafting the legislation.

“It would be a very difficult and complex legislative matter to get accomplished,” Castle said. “It would have to be done in steps, and it would have to have Republican involvement, probably starting in the middle and then going to the more conservative side.”

Bipartisanship doesn’t always yield results

Gaby said this kind of bipartisan engagement doesn’t always yield results. He pointed to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ effort to court Republican support for Senate health care legislation in the 111th Congress. The Montana Democrat spent months meeting with members of the other party, but in the end, no Republicans voted for the health care bill.

Besides, he said, Waxman, Markey and their supporters did reach across the aisle to moderate Republicans — who were more plentiful in Congress even four years ago than they are today.

“There were people to cultivate, and we and others tried to do that, and I think that Waxman and Markey both wanted something bipartisan,” Gaby said.

Other environmental groups that lobbied on Waxman-Markey note that they used a model — cap and trade — that was once championed by Republicans, having first been proposed on a large scale by the George H.W. Bush White House as a way to curb emissions linked to acid rain.

And while they say they would still like to see more engagement from Republicans on the issue, they blame entrenched industry interests for keeping that from happening, not their Democratic allies in Congress.

Waxman is now working with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on a bicameral task force aimed at helping Obama make the most of his existing authority to tackle climate change. The two sent a letter of invitation to Republican offices after the group was established in January, but no Republicans have joined.

Waxman’s staff did not say whether they were targeting Republican supporters of Waxman-Markey in particular.

Davis was not in Congress during the 2009 climate change debate, but he held a hearing on the issue as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 109th Congress with Waxman as ranking member. The former chairman said he got more flak from greens for his efforts than from fellow Republicans.

“I actually got more push-back from some of the environmental groups who thought, ‘Well, if Davis is doing the hearing, it must not be a good hearing.’”

And some past Republican supporters of climate change legislation say Democrats seem to be as disengaged on the issue as their own caucus this Congress.

“I don’t think it’s just Republicans,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who introduced a carbon dioxide cap-and-dividend bill with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in the 111th Congress. Other issues, like the national debt, are simply taking precedence right now over climate change, she said.

“I would say to you, as someone who accepts the science of climate change and as someone who recently voted not to block EPA’s regulations in this area, that you should be asking those questions of Democrats,” Collins said. “They’re in charge.”