By Alexander Bolton - 06/10/10 12:45 AM EDT
Democratic leaders are scrambling to prevent the Senate from delivering a stinging slap to President Barack Obama on climate change.
They have offered a vote on a bill they dislike in the hopes of avoiding a loss on legislation Obama hates.
But if the president were forced to use his veto to prevent legislation emerging from a Congress in which his own party enjoys substantial majorities, it would be a humiliation for him and for Democrats on Capitol Hill.
So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democratic leaders are doing what they can to stop it.
They are floating the possibility of voting on an alternative measure from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia, which they previously refused to grant floor time, Senate sources say.
A spokeswoman for Reid declined to comment on the offer. But Democrats on Wednesday thought it was good enough to win a crucial vote on the Republican resolution.
Murkowski, ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is using the Congressional Review Act, an element of the Contract With America, which allows Congress to overturn executive branch regulations with simple majority votes in both chambers. The Review Act expedites a floor vote.
Republicans don’t have the two-thirds majority they would need in both chambers to overturn an Obama veto. But Republicans say passing the resolution through one chamber would be a big win.
“Anything close to half the Senate says this is a congressional responsibility and not the administration’s, that’s a strong message from the country to the president,” said Senate GOP conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), referring to the EPA plan to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.
Democrats suffered a serious setback Tuesday when Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce panel, announced he would vote for Murkowski’s resolution. He joined Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), who are co-sponsors of the measure.
If Republicans keep their conference unified, that would give them 45 votes for Murkowski’s proposal, with a handful Democrats, such as Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Jim Webb (Va.), in play as potential allies.
Rockefeller said EPA regulation of carbon could have a “devastating” impact on West Virginia. He threw his support to Murkowski after his leaders denied him a vote on his alternative bill resolution, which would prevent the EPA curbing carbon emissions for two years from stationary sources, such as power plants and factories.
Murkowski’s resolution is broader, blocking EPA regulation of cars and trucks, not just industrial plants.
A Murkowski aide said the senator would prefer to focus on exempting stationary sources but Democratic leaders refused to allow a vote on a narrow plan, such as Rockefeller’s.
“The Congressional Review Act is like going nuclear, but you have to go nuclear— otherwise you can’t get around the opposition of the Democratic leadership,” said Robert Dillon, Murkowski’s spokesman.
Murkowski initially offered a one-year “time out” on EPA restricting emissions from stationary industrial sources, but Democratic leaders did not give it floor time, Dillon said.
Rockefeller now says a vote on his proposal is a distinct possibility, even though it would present a major obstacle to Obama’s plan to restrict emissions via EPA regulation.
“There well could be” a vote on his resolution, Rockefeller said. Unlike Murkowski’s measure, Rockefeller’s bill will need 60 votes to overcome procedural obstacles.
Several pivotal Democratic senators are now leaning against Murkowski’s resolution. They are Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.).
Environmental group lobbyists expressed confidence Wednesday that Murkowski’s resolution would not garner 51 votes.
“I think we’re looking pretty good on this,” said David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club. “It’s not really about preserving the right of Congress, it’s about killing climate legislation.”
Passage of the resolution would have dealt a severe blow to Obama’s plan to pass climate change legislation this year, he said.
Reid could hold a floor vote on Rockefeller’s resolution in the fall, after the fate of comprehensive energy and climate legislation is decided this summer.
If Murkowski’s resolution passes, it faces an uphill struggle in the House.
Democratic and Republican leadership aides say Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would not be required to schedule a vote on the resolution.
House Republicans would need a discharge petition to force action. A resolution sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, has 120 Republican cosponsors. A second resolution sponsored by Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.) has 50 cosponsors, including a significant number of Democrats.