Mitch McConnell's Coal Conundrum

The incoming Senate leader's no-shutdown pledge means he can't kill EPA's carbon regulations.

Mitch McConnell spent lots of time on the campaign trail vowing a frontal assault on President Obama's executive moves to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which he calls a declaration of war on Kentucky's coal industry.

Now that McConnell has won and is on his way to being the Senate's next majority leader, he has pledged he won't force a government shutdown in upcoming battles over federal spending legislation. What's the connection? Policy restrictions, or "riders," on spending bills are the best way for members of Congress to thwart executive actions they dislike. So something has got to give. And the Kentucky Republican acknowledges in a new interview that nixing EPA's rules via appropriations legislation is a heavy lift.

"It will be hard, because the only good tool to do that ... is through the spending process, and if [Obama] feels strongly enough about it, he can veto the bill," McConnell tells the Lexington Herald-Leader. Obama, by all indications, does feel pretty strongly about it. Those EPA rules are a central pillar of his climate-change agenda, and he's gone out of his way to personally promote them. John Podesta, a top aide, said months ago that the White House won't yield on the rules.

That doesn't mean the rules won't become a battleground in the new Congress. Republicans may attach EPA riders to spending bills as an opening gambit to seek other concessions.

And Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who calls human-induced climate change a "hoax," is set to regain the chairmanship of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, so look for him to use that gavel to bash EPA with his oversight powers, too.

Republicans can also go after other pieces of the sprawling White House climate agenda. As Bloomberg reports this morning, funding to help developing nations battle climate change "may be an early casualty of the Republican takeover of Congress."

But when it comes to the big EPA rules, while a big messaging battle looms, Republicans probably can't win the policy war right now, unless they're willing to risk the kind of shutdown standoff that McConnell is vowing to avoid.