What to Know About the EPA/Climate Change Vote

The Senate will vote this afternoon on a bill put forth by Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to confront climate change. It's a significant piece of legislation, one that could take an enormous amount of authority away from the agency.

Much is being made of today's vote, so let's dive right in. Here's what you should know about the bill, the vote, and the politics of it all:

  • Murkowski's proposal, though it merely says that Congress "disapproves" of the EPA enacting regulations based on climate change, would have teeth and would change a lot. The bill is only one sentence long, but it's been described as a blunt instrument that would "stop the agency in its tracks," as Tony Kriendler of the Environmental Defense Fund put it. Here's how it works: under the Congressional Review Act--passed along with the Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996--Congress has the power to nullify regulatory authorities proposed by executive agencies. The EPA told large carbon emitters in 2009 to start collecting emissions data, using the impact of climate change on wildlife as its basis; Murkowski's legislation would essentially deny the regulatory rule submitted by the EPA, meaning the agency would have no basis to regulate anything based on climate change, under the logic already proposed. It would halt an "untold number of programs," Kriendler says, including President Obama's agreement with automakers to limit emissions.
  • Even if it passes, it won't ever take effect.  There is little chance anything will actually change today. The House, more liberal on climate issues, will not pass this language or allow it to be included in part of a comprehensive House/Senate energy reform package, should the Senate pass its own broad reforms. President Obama has promised a veto.
  • As a result, it's a test vote on climate change. Today's vote is not about changing policy; it's an exercise in feeling out opinions on climate change and emissions regulation in the Senate.
  • The vote is on track to be held around 3:45, lasting half an hour. As a joint resolution (rather than a regular bill), it will only need 51 votes to pass--but it is expected to fail. It is also expected to be close. Four Democrats support the bill and will vote yes. Those are: Blanche Lincoln (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Ben Nelson (NE)--all of whom cosponsored the bill--and Jay Rockefeller (WV) who has said he will vote yes. A small handful of Republicans, including Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown, are expected to be peeled away and vote against it.
  • EPA regulation is not seen as the best way to tackle climate change, at least by most people. The EPA could theoretically get aggressive and institute a carbon pricing system, but they're not really in the business of doing so; more likely, EPA could handle the government's response to climate change with tight emissions. But that's not ideal, even for environmentalists, who want a comprehensive energy solution through congressional action--even though the administration has left the door open to the possibility of dealing with climate change through the EPA, especially if climate legislation fails in the Senate.
  • What to watch for this afternoon: it's not about the vote tally, necessarily. Look for senators' words, not their actions; Kreindler says Environmental Defense will be looking for statements from senators about why they voted the way they did. Look for senators who vote "yes" to Murkowski's resolution but explain afterward that it's Congress's job, not the EPA's to deal with climate change. Even senators who vote with Republicans to cut off EPA's authority, if they give that reason, might be open to aggressive climate-change legislation.