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What are Republicans going to do about climate change?

It's two years until the 2016 presidential race, but debate over the Keystone XL pipeline is pushing some GOP presidential hopefuls to go on the record about an issue they might rather not discuss: climate change. 

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    Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky makes his way to the Senate chamber to vote on a series of amendments on the bill to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. Mr. Paul is one of a few GOP senators considering a presidential run.
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When it comes to energy and climate politics, things are heating up on the Senate floor.

Debate over amendments to the Senate bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline forced Republicans to put their views on climate change on the record Wednesday, and those votes could have reverberations in this congress and the 2016 presidential race. Other amendments – from boosting offshore drilling to expediting permitting – signal the broader energy issues that pique the interest of the new Senate.

In short, 2015 is already shaping up to be a decisive one for US energy policy, and 2016 should be no different.  

“This is sort of like the coming attractions before a movie,” says Laura Hall, manager of the legislative arm of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. “It gives us a very good indication that there’s a lot of energy to work on energy issues.”

Although President Obama is likely to block the bill, Democrats used the amendment process to get Republicans’ climate change views on the record. One amendment to the Keystone bill – stating climate change is real and not a hoax – garnered an astonishing 98-to-1 majority Wednesday, depriving Democrats of the “gotcha” moment they hoped would paint Republicans as anti-science. Still, only five Republicans supported a separate amendment saying human activity “significantly” contributes to climate change.

Why does the climate vote matter? Global warming will likely be part of the conversation in the 2016 presidential race, which could include sitting Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas. Voters will want to know if they believe it’s an issue, and if so, how they’ll tackle it. And headed into the 2016 elections, Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be a major policy on which Republican candidates will have to take a position. The plan aims to slash carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

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“Whether it’s a good policy or not, it’s the policy we have,” says Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “That leads do some serious questions: If you’re going to get rid of it, what are you going to do? It’s an especially big question on the heels of that vote yesterday.”

Addressing climate change has become a cornerstone of President Obama’s tenure – a legacy that could lay the groundwork for future Democrats’ climate and energy plans.

Obama even used his State of the Union address Tuesday to critique Republicans' stance on climate change.

"I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either," Obama said. "The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

But Republicans still lack a coherent message on climate change, as laid out in a Washington Examiner piece earlier this week.

“I think [the Clean Power Plan] makes it easier for a Democrat going into 2016, because they don’t have to resurrect something like a cap-and-trade bill,” Mr. Rabe says. “This takes a lot of pressure off someone like Hillary Clinton, and may put pressure on Republican candidates” who acknowledge human-generated climate change. They’ll have to come up with another solution should they reject the Clean Power Plan and Obama’s other executive actions.

Mr. Paul gave tepid approval to the notion the planet is warming in a vote Wednesday, and Mitt Romney, considering a third run for the White House, said Thursday that he believes the climate is changing and humans actively contribute.

Broadly, Republican movement toward the middle on climate change brings the GOP more in line with the general electorate. Seventy-three percent of Americans support significant greenhouse emissions reductions from new power plants – which would help combat global warming – according to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan. The survey found that the Clean Power Plan has relatively robust public support from Democrats and Republicans, with 67 percent backing Obama’s rules to slash emissions from existing sources.

“We expected to see more substantial partisan differences than we actually found,” says Rabe, the author of the report.

Two of five GOP backers of an amendment saying humans contribute "significantly" to climate change face tough 2016 re-election battles: Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark Kirk of Illinois. Both hail from states where perceived denial of global warming could get them in hot water.

For its part, the coal industry was unimpressed with the climate change vote.

“Some ... would rather exacerbate ideological divisions than come together and make meaningful progress,” said Laura Sheehan, spokesperson for Washington-based coal industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement Wednesday.

Despite the commanding 98-to-1 vote acknowledging the planet is getting hotter, a handful of Republicans buck overwhelming scientific evidence, and don’t think human activity – like emissions-heavy power plants and exhaust from your tailpipe – is causing the change.

“Man cannot change climate,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma. “The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate.”

Still, Republicans won’t say the difficult votes are a bad thing.

“While some may suggest these are hard votes to take, nobody ever said that voting should be easy here in the United States Senate,” Senate Energy Chair Lisa Murkowski (R) said in a floor speech Wednesday night. “The issues that come before us are issues that the nation considers and that we as their representatives should take seriously.”

The many amendments on Keystone XL could also help Murkowski as she begins work on a broader energy bill.

“The breadth of the amendments showcases the wide interest many senators have on a whole range of issues. It’s illuminating,” says Margot Anderson, executive director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “A number of the issues bubbling up in this amendment process could be in the energy debate [Murkowski] would like to have” before rolling out a comprehensive bill.

If that approach is to be successful, Ms. Anderson says, what matters in crafting an energy bill is “how you’re going to package it so there’s something for the broadest group possible. It could take a couple of years to work over something more comprehensive.”

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