After months of seesawing on climate change, Sen. Mark Kirk cast a major vote in favor of environmental regulation Tuesday. But even still, environmentalists are suspicious about whether he’s really on their side.
Kirk was one of three Republicans to vote against two Congressional Review Act resolutions that would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.
The other two Republicans to cross the aisle—Maine’s Susan Collins and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte—had already publicly said they supported the Clean Power Plan, but Kirk’s vote came as a surprise. After all, he had indicated support for the CRA measures in October, and just a few months earlier he cast votes against the climate rules in an Appropriations Committee markup.
How surprising was it? The Natural Resources Defense Council blasted out a press release that bashed Kirk for voting “to ignore climate change,” before yanking it for a more favorable one after his vote was actually cast.
The uncertainty has been a constant recently for Kirk on climate change. But as he heads into a tight reelection race in a cycle when there’s been more pressure than ever on moderates to stake out a climate position, he’s portraying his vote as a signal of his support for the Clean Power Plan.
“I didn’t oppose the plan actively,” Kirk said in an interview. “I’d let it go into implementation, especially under [Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner], who I have a lot of faith in.”
But not everyone is convinced.
Sen. Brian Schatz, one of the Democrats’ leading climate hawks, said that getting the three Republican votes was “certainly a decent start on the most polarized climate-related issue before us.”
When asked about whether he’d talk to Kirk about working together going forward, Schatz hesitated.
“Sure, there’s always room for dialogue,” the Hawaii Democrat said. “But his position on the issue is not yet clear to me, so we’ll have to have a conversation in person.”
Kirk is one of many moderate Republicans facing a tough reelection (National Journal’s Charlie Cook has rated the race a tossup), and he’s one of the most closely watched by greens because he’s not as lockstep on environmental issues as other Republicans. In 2010, when the then-five-term congressman first won his Senate seat, he had a 70 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, highlighted by his vote for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.
But in the Senate, Kirk hasn’t been quite the ally greens hoped for. In January, he indicated that he did not believe in man-made climate change, although he later walked back those statements. In a June markup, Kirk cast the deciding vote to maintain a pair of riders blocking the Clean Power Plan, a move that led the Sierra Club to accuse him of putting “big polluter profits before the health of Illinois families.”
When asked about critics having trouble squaring that committee vote with his latest vote on the Senate floor, Kirk said simply, “I can see how they would say that.”
And Kirk has tried to bump up his environmental credentials. He joined a working group with fellow Republicans Ayotte, Lindsey Graham, and Lamar Alexander, who all say they believe in climate change. His campaign has repeatedly touted his work in pushing legislation to clean up the Great Lakes.
“Senator Kirk has championed the ban on sewage dumping in the Great Lakes, and today voted to improve air quality and reduce rising childhood asthma rates,” said a Kirk spokesman Tuesday. “With our diverse energy portfolio, Illinois is already leading the way in energy efficiency and is well positioned to balance the needs of the environment and the economy."
With environmentalists looking for any Republican help they can get—and more determined than ever to push out any opponents to climate action—the CRA measures were being held up as an important statement.
Even though the measures are heading for a veto and won’t become law, they offer a chance for Congress to go on record to voice opposition to the plan and send a signal to international negotiators that the whole U.S. is not on board with the White House climate agenda during high-stakes U.N. talks. From that perspective, Republicans got what they wanted; the two measures passed by a 56-42 margin (three Democrats voted for them).
David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it a “critical test vote at a critical moment” and commended Kirk for his vote. Other green groups, pleased to see any aisle-crossing, lined up with generous statements.
Even Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat running to unseat him next year, sent out a statement commending the vote, with spokesman Matt McGrath saying, “Tammy Duckworth is proud to be a leader in the fight for clean air for our kids and more Illinois jobs, and is pleased that Senator Kirk followed.”
An aide to the Duckworth campaign, however, said on Wednesday that the vote was “curious in that it’s a complete flip-flop, and he’s really long since ceded the notion that he’s a true pro-environment guy.”
That’s the narrative Duckworth's camp is promoting in the tight race. The campaign has repeatedly hammered Kirk on his mixed environmental record and has tried to tie him to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has led the charge against the climate rules.
“Best we can tell, he’s flipped, flopped, and now flipped back,” said Howard Learner, president of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center. “I hope that his votes yesterday are the right signals in turning the tide [into being] a consistently strong environment supporter, but I wouldn’t go to the bank on that.”
That comes in contrast to Ayotte, another Republican in a tossup race. Faced with the prospect of having green groups campaign against her, Ayotte has thrown herself fully in support of the Clean Power Plan, putting her on the same page as her opponent, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Now Democrats say they’d like Kirk to move in the same direction, but they aren’t sure that’s in the cards. Kirk did vote for a Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, a clarification of the Clean Water Act that supporters say would vastly improve pollution control in streams and waterways.
Ultimately, said Goldston, Kirk’s Senate resume remains a riddle.
“His positions on climate change have been increasingly hard to predict, and our hope is that the vote yesterday will start to be the lodestar,” he said. “We’ll certainly be doing everything we can to ensure that the senator continues in this vein, but we’re not taking it for granted.”