By Ben Geman - 03/24/13 03:58 PM EDT
Senate votes on climate change and the Keystone XL oil pipeline laid bare divisions among Democrats — and underscored why the White House, not Congress, will be where the critical climate decisions reside in President Obama’s second term.
Several votes during the freewheeling debate over a nonbinding budget plan provided a political barometer of where the chamber, including vulnerable Democrats, stand on the topics.
Seventeen Democrats supported Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) amendment.
They include Democrats that could face tough 2014 reelection fights, such as Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Warner (Va.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.).
However, the tally also included a number of Democrats outside this group, such as Michael Bennet (Colo.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and freshmen Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.), to name a few.
Separate votes that provided a referendum of sorts on imposing taxes or fees on industrial carbon emissions also split Democrats, though not as much as the Keystone vote.
Thirteen Democrats voted against Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) proposal to ensure that revenue from any carbon tax be returned to the U.S. public through deficit reduction, reducing other rates and other “direct” benefits.
Like the Keystone vote, the 13 included a number of Democrats facing reelection next year in red or purple states, such as Pryor, Baucus, Warner, Hagan and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.).
Blunt’s amendment drew a procedural protest that itself would have required 60 votes to overcome, and only got 53 “yes” votes — a majority, but not enough. He drew eight Democrats to his side.
The votes on the nonbinding budget resolutions were largely symbolic, and didn’t quite tackle the idea of taxing carbon emissions head on or addressing specific proposals on emissions fees.
They nonetheless illustrated that Republicans and centrist Democrats appear to form a clear majority against fees on emissions from oil and coal producers, power plants and other sources.
But if the votes re-affirmed that carbon taxes or fees don’t have political traction, the budget battle also showed that the Senate is highly unlikely to join the GOP-led House in support of thwarting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate regulations.
Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) amendment to block greenhouse gas rules garnered 47 votes, with three Democrats joining 44 Republicans in support of the failed proposal.
Taken together, the votes suggest there's not currently enough political support in Congress to either make climate policy or take away the Obama administration’s authority.
“Congress has entered a period of legislative limbo on climate, in part because a partisan divide on climate science that exists nowhere else in the world,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The failure of Inhofe's amendment arrives five weeks after Obama, in his State of the Union address, vowed more aggressive steps on climate using executive power.
EPA is working on rules to set carbon emissions standards for new power plants.
And Obama is under heavy pressure from green groups to take what they say would be a much more significant step: setting emissions rules for existing coal-fired power plants, a major source of greenhouse gases.
On Keystone, Hoeven’s amendment, offered with Baucus, garnered a symbolic filibuster-proof majority in favor of the pipeline, with the tally reaching six votes more than the 56 senators who voted a year ago for legislation to approve the pipeline.
With majorities in both chambers on record in favor of Keystone, supporters quickly sought to use Friday’s bipartisan vote to pressure Obama into approving the project.
A joint press release from the amendment’s bipartisan backers cited the tally, and the easy defeat of Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) counter-amendment, in urging Obama to greenlight TransCanada Corp.'s pipeline.
“Passing this Keystone XL amendment demonstrates with the clarity and firmness of a formal vote that the U.S. Senate supports the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and finds it in the national interest of the American people,” Hoeven said in a statement after the vote.
“The amendment recognizes that the country will benefit from the pipeline by adding tens of thousands of jobs for Americans, billions of dollars to our economy and new tax revenue for our local, state and federal governments,” he said.
Obama is under heavy pressure from the oil industry and business groups to approve Keystone, and many unions, a key part of Obama’s political base, also back the project.
But environmentalists, another part of Obama’s base, strongly oppose Keystone.
Some green groups sought to downplay the importance of the vote.
“Big Oil may have bought themselves this meaningless vote, but the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline remains where it’s been all along — with Secretary [of State] Kerry and President Obama,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in a statement.
The decision remains pending and the State Department is heading the administration review, although most observers expect the final decision will be made in the West Wing.
The White House has dropped hints recently that it could be leaning toward approval.
President Obama, in recent meetings with House and Senate Republicans, said the environmental impact of the project would not be as significant as green groups claim, according to lawmakers who attended.
And White House spokesman Josh Earnest, in mid-March, downplayed the climate impact of the project. But officials say that no decisions have been made.
— Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) is up for reelection in 2014. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information.