Congressional Republicans are seizing on a new set of Environmental Protection Agency regulations as a key political issue for the 2014 election cycle, returning to a strategy that helped the GOP wrest control of the House from Democrats three years ago.
Nearly 20 lawmakers on Thursday condemned a proposed EPA rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions, calling it a part of a “war on coal” that would decimate the industry, put thousands of people out of work and raise energy prices.
Among them was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who warned that the regulations would “guarantee there’s never a coal-fired plant built again in America.”
“This needs to be stopped and we’re going to go after them in every way we possibly can,” the Kentucky Republican said during remarks outside the Capitol.
McConnell, who is facing opposition in his bid for reelection next year, listed “the war on coal and ObamaCare” as the top two issues in the race.
That formula worked well for Republicans in 2010, when the party made president’s signature healthcare plan and Democrats’ “cap-and-trade” energy legislation central campaign issues in congressional races around the country.
Democrats suffered massive defeats as their House majority was washed away by a Tea Party wave.
Three years later, the Affordable Care Act is taking effect and remains a major issue for Republicans. The president’s plan to fight climate change through a serious of regulatory actions also has the GOP feeling déjà vu.
“The president has essentially doubled down on both of these issues,” said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We think this is bad, bad news for House Democrats.”
Scarpinato said the party views the president’s global warming initiative as a winning issue for the GOP, citing internal NRCC polling.
Already, the NRCC is running ads targeting incumbent Democrats on energy and regulation, including Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
Rahall, however, spoke out Thursday against the EPA’s power plant regulations. The lone Democrat at a news conference to oppose the rule, Rahall joined more than a dozen Republicans in accusing the Obama administration of a “war on coal.”
Rahall brushed aside the NRCC attacks, insisting his constituents know his stance and would not be fooled by “political hacks.”
“I’m not worried about political impacts,” he said. “I’m worried about job impacts.”
The draft regulations, unveiled last week, are a central component of President Obama’s climate change initiative.
The proposal calls for all new coal plants to be built with a technology that captures and stores carbon emissions, which the coal industry and its advocates have said is too expensive and not yet workable at a commercial scale.
The requirement would amount to an effective ban on new coal plants, opponents say.
The regulations are already beginning to play prominently in upcoming Senate elections, especially in coal country states like West Virginia and Kentucky, where Democrats are seeking to hold onto a seat vacated by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and topple McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the likely Republican nominee in her state, said coal would “absolutely” be a big issue in the upcoming race.
“It’s been a big issue for the last five years and it will continue to be one, certainly through the next election. Job-killing regulatory policies are hurting our state tremendously,” she said.
Democrats running in West Virginia and Kentucky released statements criticizing the EPA rules when they were released on Friday.
Instead of putting them in a tight spot, coal-state Democrats say their opposition to the EPA regulations proves allegiance to constituents, not the national party.
“Democratic candidates in Kentucky and West Virginia will continue to do what’s best for their states, unlike Shelley Moore Capito, Pat McGeehan, Matt Bevin and Mitch McConnell, who are all cheerleading for a government shutdown despite the devastating consequences a shutdown would have for Kentucky and West Virginia,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky told The Hill in an email.
Coal-friendly lawmakers on Thursday pledged to “use every avenue available” to thwart the EPA’s efforts, starting with hearings in Congress and new legislation that will be released “relatively soon,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Environmentalists and public health advocates have supported the rules, which they say are critical to preventing air pollution and protecting Americans’ health.
Conservative lawmakers countered Thursday that the effort amounts to an unprecedented power grab by the executive branch.
“The other issue here really is who writes the law in our country? Does the legislature write the law or does the president get to do it by fiat?” questioned Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016.
“This is a type of a tyranny,” he added. “We will fight it. Not just because it’s bad for jobs, bad for coal, but because it goes against everything we stand for. We write the laws; the president doesn’t get to."