GOP Contenders Attack Obama on Climate at Koch Summit

Ted Cruz questions climate science, accuses Obama of siding with 'California environmentalist billionaires' over workers.

US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) waits to speak at the Heritage Foundation January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Cruz and others spoke about the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi and Russia's human rights record. (National Journal)

Republican White House hopefuls wasted no time Sunday trying to translate controversial Environmental Protection Agency climate-change regulations into political traction for their campaigns.

The same day that the White House detailed a sweeping set of regulations on the power sector, several presidential candidates appeared at a Southern California forum for wealthy donors hosted by Freedom Partners, a political outfit funded by the Koch brothers.

And they delivered just what the conservative audience wanted to hear. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a staunch climate denier, blasted President Obama for a video introducing the power-plant rules, in which Obama said climate change has "serious implications for the way we live now."

When asked whether he thought Obama was exaggerating the threat of climate change, Cruz paused and said, "You know, there's a different word than 'exaggerating' I might use," to laughter from the crowd.

He also leaned on his familiar position, questioning climate science and telling the crowd, "I think science and facts matter."

And he sought to drive a wedge between environmentalists and unions, two pillars of the Democratic coalition. He accused Obama and Democrats of choosing to "go with California environmentalist billionaires and their campaign donations instead of the jobs of their union members," a not-so-veiled reference to liberal billionaire and donor Tom Steyer.

Cruz didn't have a monopoly on casting the rules as a sop to elite interests.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio attacked the rules at the same event, alleging it will "make the cost of electricity higher for millions of Americans."

"So if there is some billionaire somewhere who is a pro-environmental, cap-and-trade person, yeah, they can probably afford for their electric bill to go up a couple hundred dollars. But if you are a single mom in Tampa, Florida, and your electric bill goes up by $30 a month, that is catastrophic," Rubio said.

EPA officials, when they issued the rules in draft form last year, acknowledged they would increase power rates but said that consumers' electricity bills would nonetheless be lower in the long run, owing to gains in energy efficiency under the plan.

On Sunday, the White House said the rules would save the average family almost $85 on their annual energy bill in 2030.

But in a statement Sunday, Jeb Bush called the rule "irresponsible and overreaching" and said it "runs over state governments, will throw countless people out of work, and increases everyone's energy prices.

"Climate change will not be solved by grabbing power from states or slowly hollowing out our economy," said Bush, who also made an appearance at the Freedom Partners forum Sunday. "The real challenge is how do we grow and prosper in order to foster more game-changing innovations and give us the resources we need to solve problems like this one."

The final rules, which will be officially ruled out Monday, are the first limits on carbon-dioxide pollution from the power sector and are being billed as the White House as the biggest step any president has taken on climate change.

The rules are projected to slash power-plant emissions by 32 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2030, while overhauling the industry with more renewable power replacing coal and natural gas.

Bashing the president's climate plan as an executive overstep that will raise electricity prices and gut employment in the coal industry may be easy politics for Republicans, but it's an attack that could also carry serious policy consequences. The way the rule is structured, states will submit individual compliance plans that don't have to be finalized 2018 if they take advantage of extensions, leaving it up to a future administration to enforce them.

A Republican administration could OK weaker plans, or wait for a court to strike down some or all of the plan and rewrite it in a less stringent way.