Climate change: Why does President Obama's plan skirt Congress?

With Republicans implacably opposed – and some Democrats still wary of fallout at the polls – there's little prospect of getting climate change reform through Capitol Hill.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The Capitol Dome is seen behind the Capitol Power Plant in Washington on Monday. For years, coal-state lawmakers opposed moves to end the use of coal in the plant, which provides power to buildings in the Capitol Complex. But this month, Congress obtained the last permits needed to complete the transition to 100 percent natural gas.

When President Obama lays out his agenda to fight climate change at Georgetown University on Tuesday, there won’t be a grand push for sweeping climate legislation.

And that’s mostly because energy, once one of the most bipartisan issues on Capitol Hill, now divides the two parties nearly as starkly as taxes.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are inimically opposed to not only most measures that come stamped “President Obama Approved” but climate initiatives in particular, making anything more than the smallest legislative tweak a near impossibility for GOP lawmakers. It's also a high risk issue for energy state Democrats, especially those facing voters in coal country.

Where liberals see the devastating impact of climate change looming on the horizon, Republicans see overly burdensome rules and regulations from the “Employment Prevention Agency.”

A spokesman for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky called the president’s planned announcement “a pivot away from jobs,” questioned why Democrats didn’t bring the president’s wanted environmental actions to the floor of the Senate, and claimed the president’s policies would hike utility bills and hurt employment.

Asked about the president’s climate initiative last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio was also unyielding. 

“I think this is absolutely crazy,” Speaker Boehner told reporters. “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?' ”

That “Where are the jobs?” refrain is a throwback to the speaker’s daily criticism of the president during the 2012 election campaign.

Then, GOP contender Mitt Romney’s only concrete jobs proposal was to vastly expand fossil fuel production, and two of the right’s most well-worn talking points were the Obama administration’s “war on coal” and the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra (a clear example of Obama’s “crony capitalism” at work).

On energy, the election did little to budge the two sides on Capitol Hill. Then as now, congressional Republicans faced a president who far outstrips them in public approval polls and has a particular edge when voters are asked who cares about them more. In that context, Republicans see energy as a way of connecting with ordinary Americans on pocketbook issues like jobs and utility costs.

In the symbolically important assignment of enumerating House legislative initiatives, the lower the number, the more significant the priority.

Boehner reserved House Resolution (H.R.) 1 for a future tax reform effort, a bedrock Republican belief. The House’s 45th resolution, H.R. 45, was its full repeal of Obamacare.

But the highest bill the House has enacted so far this year is H.R. 3, Rep. Lee Terry (R) of Nebraska’s “Northern Route Approval Act,” which approved the Keystone XL Pipeline. That vote saw all but one of the House GOP vote in favor of the bill and 19 Democrats join the conservative cause.

Keystone, whose approval has lingered on for years, is a rallying cry for Republicans far from states who would benefit from its construction, because it’s the most public symbol of how the GOP sees Obama’s climate and energy initiatives.

They think the president talks a good game (an “all of the above” energy strategy, for example) but always sides with his environmental allies when the chips are down, needlessly delaying not only Keystone but drilling on a host of federal lands near GOP congressional turf from the eastern shore of Virginia to the Gulf Coast.

The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee criticized seven Democrats, four sitting senators and three candidates or potential candidates for Senate seats, on Monday for supporting the president’s “radical climate change” agenda, even before Obama laid out his plans.

While Republicans are chiefly responsible for zeroing out the president’s chances of moving climate legislation on Capitol Hill, Democrats are wary, too. Twice in the last 20 years (in 1994 and 2009), House Democrats have passed a version of a tax on carbon only to see two things happen.

First, that politically painful vote did not sway their colleagues in the Senate to pass the measure. Second, Democrats in energy-producing states were massacred at the polls for their trouble.

The beatings were so resounding that the votes birthed a new verb, “BTUed,” for getting one’s political clock cleaned after taking a tough vote on a policy going nowhere. (A British thermal unit, or BTU, is a way of measuring energy.)

The left-right divide on climate issues is evident even in some of the Capitol’s most bipartisan places.

When Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana was asked whether he and Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan might consider a carbon tax as part of their bipartisan tax reform efforts at a recent Christian Science Monitor Breakfast, Senator Baucus described Democratic support as “creeping up a little bit.”

“Everything’s on the table,” Senator Baucus said, repeating the holy mantra for tax reformers that they’re willing to look at any and all proposals.

“We’ll look at that as well some other alternative measures” for raising revenue, he said, “but I want to take the temperature of the committee.”

But Baucus’s partner in crime was having none of it.

“I try not to make many declarative statements about tax reform,” Representative Camp said, “but I don’t support a carbon tax.”

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