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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 InhofeBiden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike Sanders expresses 'serious concerns' with Biden's defense increase Senate GOP slams Biden defense budget 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 WhitehouseLawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Democrats wrestle over tax hikes for infrastructure Democrats look to impose capital gains tax at death 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 McConnellTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Senate GOP opens door to earmarks McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' 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 BoxerBottom line Trump administration halting imports of cotton, tomatoes from Uighur region of China Biden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status 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 GrahamMSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike 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 PaulCharles Booker launches exploratory committee to consider challenge to Rand Paul Rand Paul calls Fauci a 'petty tyrant' Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies 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 KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteOvernight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal Study group recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal 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 CornynOn The Money: Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan | Democrats debate tax hikes on wealthy | Biden, Congress target semiconductor shortage Hillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Lawmakers, industry call on Biden to fund semiconductor production amid shortage 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 SessionsBiden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden administration should resist 'slush-fund' settlements 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 Wicker OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan | House GOP's planned environmental bills drop Democratic priorities | Advocates optimistic Biden infrastructure plan is a step toward sustainability On The Money: Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan | Democrats debate tax hikes on wealthy | Biden, Congress target semiconductor shortage Against mounting odds, Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan 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.