Inside the Senate's big vote on whether climate change is real

Just minutes before an explosive vote on whether climate change is real, Republicans received a surprising message from Sen. James InhofeJames InhofeFeds weigh whether carbon pollution should be measured in highway performance GOP chairman: Kids are ‘brainwashed’ on climate change Feds withdraw lesser prairie-chicken protections MORE.

“Vote yes.”

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The Oklahoma Republican, derided by the left as Congress’s leading “denier” of climate science, had decided the night before, while huddled in his office with staffers, that he would support an amendment from Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDem senator: Clinton may command 'majority of the Republican caucus' Banking association backs financial transparency bill Shift in care could reverse the opioid epidemic MORE (D-R.I.) stating, “climate change is real and not a hoax.”

“Well, that’s true,” Inhofe said. “I can vote for that.”

“I think we should get our whole caucus to vote for this,” he added, according to a top aide.

Inhofe and his aides drew up 54 notecards — one for every Republican in the Senate — urging them to vote for the amendment, which Democrats were putting forward as an addition to the Keystone XL pipeline bill.

The card said:

Inhofe recommends a Yes vote because

1. The climate has always been changing and

2. There is no consensus that human actions and emissions levels have significant, negative impacts on global climate change

Inhofe informed only Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSanders, Merkley back McConnell decision to skip TPP vote John McCain: No longer a profile in courage McConnell: Senate won't take up TPP this year MORE (R-Ky.) of his plan, fearing Democrats would revise the amendment if they got wind of it.

“If they started thinking about it, he could have reworded it in such a way that it could have been a totally different thing,” Inhofe said.

When the time came for the vote, Inhofe approached Whitehouse on the Senate floor and told him he wanted to become a co-sponsor.  

“You should have seen the look on his face,” said the Inhofe aide.

Inhofe reasoned that the climate has always changed, and said on the Senate floor that there is “biblical evidence” supporting that view.

Whitehouse, who is co-chairman of a bicameral climate change caucus, acknowledged the move took him by surprise but told The Hill he wouldn’t go back and change the amendment, even if he could.

Inhofe’s “little trick of twisting the rhetoric a bit” gave Republicans the political cover they needed to vote for the amendment, Whitehouse said.

The result of the unlikely Inhofe-Whitehouse pairing was an overwhelming 98-1 Senate vote endorsing the view that climate change is “not a hoax,” foiling the first attempt by Democrats to portray the Republican Party as anti-science ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.

Later that day, Republicans blocked two amendments stating that human beings contribute to climate change, giving ammunition to Democrats who say the GOP is standing in the way of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and halt the warming of the planet.

But it was the first vote of the day that became the talk of Washington.

Did Republicans beat Democrats at their own game or make a tactical error they — and their 2016 hopefuls — will live to regret?

Whitehouse said the vote was the “first public discussion of climate change” in the Senate in years and “a very good first step.”

“The fact [is] that we got 98-1 and have rid ourselves forever [of] the argument that there is not climate change,” he said.

Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerDem senator pushes EPA on asbestos regulations Trump was wrong: Kaine is a liberal in a moderate's clothing Feds weigh whether carbon pollution should be measured in highway performance MORE (D-Calif.) has a more pointed assessment.

“I wasn’t surprised [by the vote], because I knew [Republicans] are losing the public relations battle by being so Neanderthal on the issue,” she said.

The climate change debate has stirred anxiety in corners of the GOP, with some fearing the “denier” rhetoric from Democrats could be politically damaging in the 2016 elections.

“From a Republican Party point of view, if you don’t embrace what seems to be an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, you risk the idea that you are anti-science,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham: Let special prosecutor probe Clinton emails The Trail 2016: Clinton’s ups and downs Graham: GOP being 'left behind' under Trump MORE (R-S.C.), who is considering a run for the White House in 2016.

“So the risk you run is that people don’t just look at you as outside the norm when it comes to evaluating science; it runs deeper.”

Fifteen Senate Republicans, several of them up for reelection in blue states, voted for a second amendment that said humans contribute to climate change. Among the supporters: Graham and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump, Clinton boost Snapchat spending Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley Trump gets little backing from Silicon Valley MORE (R-Ky.), another possible candidate for the White House in 2016.

Five Republicans went one step further, voting for a third amendment from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that said humans “significantly” contribute to climate change. Two of the “yes” votes came from Sens. Mark KirkMark KirkWhite House dismisses GOP senator's likening of Obama to 'drug dealer in chief' The Trail 2016: Focus on the Foundation White House: 0M Iran payment wasn’t ransom MORE (R-Ill.) and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSanders to campaign for Clinton on Labor Day Republicans slam Biden remarks on closing Gitmo GOP: Ship harassment shows US-Iran relations aren't warming MORE (R-N.H.), who are up for reelection in 2016.

“Democrats are going to continue to play games with them until they are unified in approach. Sen. Schatz and others were trying to see how many different ways to chip away at the GOP position,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

“Democrats are trolling Republicans extremely hard on this issue.”

By voting for Whitehouse’s amendment, O’Connell added, “Republicans were making sure they don’t handcuff a 2016 GOP nominee.”

Republicans, for their part, said they are confident that voters will see through the political gamesmanship.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's 12:30 Report Top Republican questions Lynch on Clinton Foundation probe Baby dies of Zika in Texas MORE (R-Texas) dubbed the “hoax” amendment a “ ‘gotcha’ vote,” and an Inhofe aide said the senator had turned the tables on the Democrats.

“He decided that this was a moment to make people aware of the game they were playing,” the aide said.

Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsSessions: 'I can be supportive' of Trump's immigration plans Hard-liners shrug off Trump’s softer tone on immigration Trump vows to protect jobs, wages for Hispanic voters MORE (R-Ala.) mocked Democrats for “trying to create something so they could run around and say, ‘These are deniers.’ ”

Still, there was one member of the Republican conference who refused to go along with Inhofe’s gambit: Sen. Roger WickerRoger WickerMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Top GOP senator: Trump will have little effect on Senate races GOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump MORE (R-Miss.), the chairman of the campaign committee for Senate Republicans.

“It was, to me, an attempt to play a political word game to slow the bill down, and I decided not to play along,” Wicker told The Hill.

Whitehouse suggested Inhofe’s strategy was too clever by half and said voters understand perfectly well that saying “climate change is real” means humans contribute.

“I think that for the people who thought this was a cute dodge, I think most Americans take a look at that vote and make exactly the same conclusion,” he said.

Whitehouse joked he wants to have 100 votes on climate change before the 2016 election cycle, perhaps by pitting the GOP’s views against popular institutions like the military or the Catholic Church.

“Do they really want to reject the views of Pope Francis on this subject?” Whitehouse said.