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The Senate on Wednesday voted that “climate change is real and is not a hoax” as Democrats used the Keystone XL pipeline debate to force votes on the politically charged issue ahead of the 2016 elections.

The “hoax” amendment to the pipeline bill from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) passed 98-1, with only Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm, voting “no.”

{mosads}In a surprise, the Senate’s leading skeptic of climate science, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), voted in favor of the amendment — but made clear he doesn’t believe humans are the primary driver of climate change.

The GOP “yes” votes also included three of the GOP’s leading contenders for the White House: Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Republicans backed Inhofe’s stance in a second vote, rejecting an amendment from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that stated, “climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”

The “significantly” in the provision is what many Republicans pointed to as a point of contention as they blocked the amendment in a 50-49 vote, short of the 60 that was needed for approval.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted for Whitehouse’s amendment but rejected Schatz’s, said the inclusion of “significantly” was “sufficient to merit a ‘no’ vote.”

Five Republicans broke with the party line and voted for Schatz’s amendment: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.). Kirk and Ayotte are up for reelection in 2016.

In an attempt to provide political cover for Republicans, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) put forward an alternative that expressed the sense of the Senate that the Keystone oil pipeline would not significantly impact the environment or contribute to global emissions. The provision included a line stating that humans contribute to climate change but without the word “significantly.” 

Fifteen Republicans voted for that amendment, including Paul, making him the only 2016 contender to go on record as saying that human beings contribute to climate change.

The other Republicans who voted for Hoeven’s measure were: Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), John McCain (Ariz.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Dean Heller (Nev.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Murkowski, Graham, Collins, Ayotte, Kirk and  Alexander.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the climate change votes “a step forward” for Republicans. 

“I think what is exciting is that today we saw for the first time — a number, a minority — but some Republicans going onboard and saying that climate change is real and it’s caused by human activity,” Sanders said.

“And I suspect that you are going to see in the months to come, more and more Republicans forced to acknowledge that reality,” he added.

Sanders said the Senate would vote Thursday on his amendment, which goes one step further by stating that climate change is “already causing severe problems all over the world, we have a window of opportunity and we have to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency.”

Wednesday’s votes came after senators duked it out on the Senate floor in a wide-ranging debate over climate change and its relationship — or lack thereof — to the $8 billion pipeline project, which is undergoing federal review.

“It starts by admitting you have a problem, just like many other areas of human life,” Whitehouse said of Republicans’ skepticism on climate change.

Graham, who is mulling a White House bid, said the fact that climate change is real he “completely understand[s] and accept[s],” but as to the amount human are contributing, “I don’t know.”

“It does make sense that man-made emissions are contributing to the global warming effect — the greenhouse gas effect seems to me scientifically sound,” Graham said. “The problem is that how you fix this globally is going to require more than just the U.S. being involved.”

Graham has said in the past he believes climate change is occurring but scolded Democrats for using “gimmicks” and “tricks” that hurt their cause.

“You are undercutting a real genuine debate. You made climate change a religion rather than a problem. It is a problem,” Graham said.

He said Democrats should not be blocking construction of a pipeline that he said would benefit the U.S. and help transport crude oil from not just Canada but key production hotspots in the U.S.

High-ranking Republicans have in recent months taken to deflecting questions about climate change in interviews, repeatedly stating, “I am not a scientist.” Environmental advocates have expressed hope that the refrain is the beginning of a shift in the GOP on the issue.

Still, President Obama, who has made climate change a central focus of his second term, turned the “scientist” response into a punch line in his State of the Union address.

“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act,” Obama said. “Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.”

The Senate also voted Wednesday on three other amendments to the Keystone bill, with none of them passing.

Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) amendment to limit lawyer fees on endangered species lawsuits was voted down 54-45. Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) measure on the transportation of petroleum coke fell in a 41-58 vote. And Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) amendment on coal refuse plants was voted down 54-45.

This story was updated at 8:39 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bob Corker Dean Heller Dick Durbin James Inhofe Jeff Flake John Hoeven John McCain Kelly Ayotte Lamar Alexander Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Mark Kirk Mike Lee Orrin Hatch Rand Paul Rob Portman Roger Wicker Sheldon Whitehouse Susan Collins Ted Cruz

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