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Senate votes highlight Dem divisions over Keystone pipeline, carbon taxes

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.

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Advocates of the proposed pipeline scored a symbolic victory Friday when 62 lawmakers voted for an amendment backing the project to bring oil from Canadian tar sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.

Seventeen Democrats supported Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA GOP anxious with Trump on trade GOP lawmakers to Trump: Don't fire Mueller MORE’s (R-N.D.) amendment. 

They include Democrats that could face tough 2014 reelection fights, such as Max BaucusMax Sieben Baucus2020 Dems pose a big dilemma for Schumer Steady American leadership is key to success with China and Korea Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate MORE (Mont.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (Alaska), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Mueller indictment reveals sophisticated Russian manipulation effort GOP cautious, Dems strident in reaction to new indictments MORE (Va.), Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganPolitics is purple in North Carolina Democrats can win North Carolina just like Jimmy Carter did in 1976 North Carolina will be a big battleground state in 2020 MORE (N.C.) and Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (Ark.).

However, the tally also included a number of Democrats outside this group, such as Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetColorado senators pitch immigration compromise Colorado senators mark Olympics with Senate hallway curling GOP Senate candidate fundraising lags behind Dems in key races MORE (Colo.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and freshmen Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampSenate rejects Trump immigration plan Cramer to announce North Dakota Senate run on Friday Senate Democrats not sold on bipartisan immigration deal MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Dem group launches M ad buy to boost vulnerable senators Senate rejects Trump immigration plan MORE (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 WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseCommittee chairman aims for House vote on opioid bills by Memorial Day Regulators seek to remove barriers to electric grid storage Prison sentencing bill advances over Sessions objections MORE’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 LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuProject Veritas at risk of losing fundraising license in New York, AG warns You want to recall John McCain? Good luck, it will be impossible CNN producer on new O'Keefe video: Voters are 'stupid,' Trump is 'crazy' MORE (La.).

The Whitehouse amendment went toe-to-toe with Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntRussian assault on 'American idea' enables Trump to take tough action Eleven lawmakers have used campaign funds to pay NRA dues: report Kimmel writer tweets amount NRA has given lawmakers in response to shooting prayers MORE’s (R-Mo.) anti-carbon tax amendment to ensure that any future carbon tax legislation requires 60 votes to pass.

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 InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: First Gitmo transfer under Trump could happen 'soon' | White House says Trump has confidence in VA chief | Russia concedes 'dozens' of civilians injured in Syria clash Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived House passes deal to end shutdown MORE’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.  

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“There’s also a sneaking sense that many members of Congress on both sides prefer to let the President do the heavy lifting through regulation, rather than undertake more effective but politically complicated action themselves,” added Bledsoe, who worked on climate as an aide in the Clinton White House.

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 BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerKamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push MORE’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 CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAfter Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Sunday shows preview: Russian charges, Florida shooting dominate coverage MORE (D-Del.) is up for reelection in 2014. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information.