No longer content with simply mocking the Right's "I am not a scientist" rhetoric, Democrats are licking their lips at the opportunity to force their Republican colleagues to answer a question about climate change a different way: aye or nay.
A vote on climate change will give the Left another chance to try and paint the Republican orthodoxy as holding tight to an anti-science, anti-mainstream position that global warming doesn't exist or isn't being caused by man-made greenhouse-gas emissions. To them, it's a winning message: to hammer home the idea that Republicans are so anti-science that James Inhofe, who gleefully claims climate change is a hoax, is the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of all places.
When even Pope Francis is saying that climate change is largely caused by "man who continuously slaps down nature" while the House speaker dodges the question, the thinking from the Left is that an up-or-down vote will force Republicans to confront public opinion that's turning towards concern about climate change.
"They're in an impossible position and they'd like to not have to address that issue because, frankly, their position isn't supportable in any kind of responsible conversation," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
The Rhode Island Democrat is one of several members pushing for votes on climate science, starting with the much-anticipated debate on a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline. So far, four Democrats and one independent have proposed eight different amendments that would put the Senate on record as saying climate change is real.
The amendments take on different forms, with some saying outright that climate change is real and others focusing on the need to address it and its impacts. There's no guarantee that any of them will come to a vote, but Democrats have signaled that they're ready to force Republicans to stand by their positions, or at least clarify them.
The party line from the Right, to date, has been to answer questions about climate change with "I'm not a scientist" and pivot to hitting President Obama's environmental policy.
Take House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday, speaking to reporters at the GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa.: "Clearly we've had changes in our climate. I'll let the scientists debate the sources, in their opinion, of that change. But I think the real question is that every proposal we see out of this administration with regard to climate change means killing American jobs."
Democrats and greens, meanwhile, have embraced "I'm not a scientist" as a meme with which to mock the GOP.
"I'll translate that for you, President Obama said at the University of California (Irvine) last summer. "What that really means is, 'I know that man-made climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I'll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I'm not going to admit it.'"
Best case, for the Left, is they get another Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican who found himself in hot water after he told E&E Daily that climate change wasn't caused by industrial emissions and that "political correctness took over climate science." He's spent the time since then walking back that statement.
Groups on the Left attacked several Republican candidates in last year's midterms for being climate skeptics, backed by big bucks from Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate PAC. That ended up not being a winning strategy, but the map will be different next year as races are contested in blue and purple states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania.
"Voters absolutely have a right to know where their senators stand on these pressing issues," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters. Inhofe and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sittenfeld said, "have talked about going after any number of cornerstone environmental tactics, and with so many Republicans up in swing states that could put in jeopardy members of their own party."
In fact, LCV has already circulated a memo on Kirk's comments, warning that he would "continue to pay a political price" if he doesn't clarify his climate beliefs.
A poll released Thursday by the Center for American Progress found that just 34 percent of likely voters said they preferred congressional Republicans' approach on energy and environment compared to the White House's.
"There is a fundamental disconnect between the priorities of this new Congress and the priorities and preferences of most Americans," said CAP Action Fund President and former Ohio governor Ted Strickland. "Anti-environmental attacks from this Congress are going to face major pushback from voters."
Besides Kirk, plenty of other Republicans are up in moderate states, like Rob Portman in Ohio, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who works in New Hampshire, said Democrats were clearly trying to push the climate issue, but doubted the strategy would do much more than bring Steyer's money into more races.
"People are concerned about jobs, the economy, and the rise of radical Islam around the globe," said Williams, who advised Scott Brown's unsuccessful 2014 Senate campaign, which saw Steyer invest heavily. "This is nothing more than a political stunt designed to curry favor with a radical California billionaire."
Whatever the result, the immediate question for Democrats is what their climate vote looks like, and who gets to take the mantle of forcing the vote.
Will they put the Senate on record as saying, "Climate change is real and not a hoax," as proposed by Sen. Whitehouse? An alternative from Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon would require Congress to accept the findings of 10 scientific institutions that "global warming is real and due to human activity."
Or Democrats could push for a vote on the impacts of climate change, such as another Merkley amendment that says "rural communities of the United States are and will be significantly impacted by climate change."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, pitched a five-part Sense of the Senate resolution stating that climate change is real and caused by humans, and that the country needs to transition to a clean-energy economy. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has three separate amendments on climate science. And Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia has a proposal stating that climate change is caused by humans and "economically reasonable steps" should be taken to reduce carbon pollution from energy production.
An aide for Merkley said there could be room for several votes.
"In an ideal world, it would be great to get people on the record on the reality of climate change in a variety of different ways, since each separate resolution would require them to acknowledge (or not acknowledge, as the case may be) a distinct set of facts," the aide added in an email.
Leaders from both parties will negotiate which amendments come to the floor, and each side has dozens of items they'd like to float in the free-wheeling floor debate. Republican leaders have said they're not blocking anything from coming up, although McConnell made clear that the open process was not "open-ended."
The flurry of amendments shows Democrats are committed to making life difficult for Republicans—unless they don't.
Sanders' amendment, which he offered in a committee vote last week, contains a line that says it is "imperative that the United States transform its energy system away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy as rapidly as possible." Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a sponsor of the Keystone bill, said in committee that while he believed in climate change, he wouldn't vote for the amendment because the resolution didn't account for the importance of fossil fuels in the economy.
GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also took issue with the wording of the amendment, signalling a potential strategy for uncomfortable senators. The specific language of some of the amendments may give senators an out to please business interests who don't want to see them take a stand on the issue, while saving face by not outright denying climate change.
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