“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).