Forced to finally vote on climate change, a majority of senators have signaled that they believe the phenomenon is real and that humans have at least some role to play. But how much, and what to do about it, remains murky.
After a week’s worth of freewheeling debate on the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, which centered chiefly around climate change, a few patterns have begun to emerge in the Senate: There is a group of hard-core believers in human-caused climate change, a group that rejects those conclusions and more than a dozen senators who find themselves in the middle, torn by economics, politics and continuing questions over what the research actually proves.
Maybe just as significant as the outcome of the votes was the fact that the Senate, now under Republican control, held the votes at all. In a single week, the chamber voted on more amendments than it did during all of last year, when Democrats controlled the chamber and kept a tight rein on what lawmakers were allowed to do.
“If there’s one thing there is agreement on, it’s recognition that our climate is changing. Some would say that’s a pretty significant step,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which is overseeing the Keystone debate.
Republicans are pushing hard for passage of the Keystone bill to test Democrats’ willingness to buck President Obama — who has vowed a veto — and as a way of showing Republicans are serious about allowing a free-flowing debate on amendments.
The debate resumes Monday, but it’s unclear what other amendments will be allowed after a late-night parliamentary scuffle last Thursday. A key test filibuster vote is slated for Monday night, with a final one possible late Tuesday or Wednesday.
But the climate change debate is likely over for now, and the competing votes left a murky picture. One amendment saying that climate change is “real” drew almost unanimous support. One that said humans “significantly” contribute to it split the Senate almost in half. One that said “human activity contributes to climate change” — but deleted the word “significantly” — drew 59 votes of support, including 14 Republicans and all of the Democrats present.
In another vote, 56 senators said climate change is real and is already causing “devastating problems” and said the U.S. must move away from fossil fuels or else risk “irreparable harm” to the planet.
“What it showed was there’s probably a really hard knot of 40 guys who are completely aware of the deficiencies of the science, there are 40 guys who are blind believers in everything Obama tells them, and then there’s 20 folks in the middle who, depending on how you think of them, are either groping for the truth or groping for what they think is sufficient [political] cover,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican Party strategist and energy lobbyist who was tracking the votes.
The tallies show little has changed from a decade ago, when the Senate held in a 53-44 vote that “human activity is a substantial cause” of greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures.
“What’s clear is that almost all of the Senate Republicans still are not for anything,” David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog analyzing the votes.
Mr. Doniger said he was particularly disappointed in Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom he saw a decade ago as an emerging GOP leader for taking action to combat global warming, but who last week voted against the amendments tying human activity to global warming.
The votes also had to be disappointing for the White House and for major global warming activists such as Tom Steyer, the billionaire businessman who poured tens of millions of dollars into last year’s elections to try to boost candidates who promised to combat climate change.
“At $75 million a pop, he’s going to be out of cash in 10 years,” Mr. McKenna said.
One amendment that could develop into a bigger issue amounted to a statement of rejection of President Obama’s latest global warming deal with China. Under that deal, announced late last year, the U.S. agreed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions more steeply. China didn’t commit to any specific reductions, but said it would try to have its emissions peak by 2030 — giving it 15 more years of rising pollution.
Mr. Obama hailed the pact as “historic,” saying to get any target from China was significant, while opponents in the U.S. said it was an economic disaster for the U.S., which will see its economy slip in relation to China because of the deal.
Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, wrote a resolution rejecting the China deal, which garnered 51 votes of support — a majority, but still shy of the 60 needed to be included in the final bill.
“You basically had 46 senators pick the Chinese over their own state. And the voters are going to punish some or all of them over that choice,” Mr. McKenna said.
Mr. Doniger, though, said it was a mistake for Republicans to reject the China deal since the GOP has been calling for China to agree to targets.
For now, all sides are taking stock of the GOP’s control of the Senate so far in January as well as the number of amendments allowed.
Sen. Harry Reid, the chamber’s Democratic leader, who has been absent from the debate so far this year, but whom Republicans blasted for refusing to allow votes on amendments on most bills last year, dismissed the GOP’s early performance.
“Let’s understand this: The success of a Congress is not determined on how many amendments people vote on,” he said. “The success of this Congress will be determined on what happens to the middle class.”
Mr. McKenna predicted that some Democrats would use the procedural fight as an excuse to back away from the bill and support an expected Democratic filibuster despite being co-sponsors of the legislation. That could be enough to doom the bill.
Messages left with key Democrats Friday went unreturned, but Ms. Murkowski said she hadn’t heard any rumblings from Democratic co-sponsors that they were wavering on their support.