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 (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Trump nominates Shanahan as Pentagon chief | House panel advances bill to block military funds for border wall | Trump defends Bolton despite differences Trump nominates Shanahan as Pentagon chief Iran, Venezuela puts spotlight on Trump adviser John Bolton 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 WhitehouseOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs Lawmakers take EPA head to task for refusing to demand Pruitt repay travel expenses Dems request investigation of lobbyist-turned-EPA employee who met with former boss 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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran On The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act 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 Levy BoxerOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Hispanic civil rights icon endorses Harris for president California AG Becerra included in Bloomberg 50 list 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 Olin GrahamTrump, Europe increasingly at odds on Iran Trump: Anonymous news sources are 'bulls---' Trump: 'Good chance' Dems give immigration 'win' after Pelosi called White House plan 'dead on arrival' 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 PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulBolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran US ambassador to Germany ruffles State Department with budget stand Overnight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon 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 Steven KirkEx-GOP Sen. Kirk registers to lobby The global reality behind 'local' problems Dems vow swift action on gun reform next year MORE (R-Ill.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race New Hampshire senator to ask 2020 Dems to back repeal of state residency law Schultz recruiting GOP insiders ahead of possible 2020 bid 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 CornynTrump's immigration push faces Capitol Hill buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race 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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMSNBC host: Barr 'the most dangerous person' who works for Trump Chris Wallace: AG Barr 'clearly is protecting' Trump Appeals court rules Trump end of DACA was unlawful 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 Frederick WickerSenate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Senate Commerce chair to renew push for regs on self-driving vehicles 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.