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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 InhofeGraham: 'Game changer' if Saudis behind journalist's disappearance GOP senators ask EPA to block states that have 'hijacked' rule to stop fossil fuel production Pentagon releases report on sexual assault risk 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 WhitehouseDemocrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Senate poised to confirm Kavanaugh after bitter fight Hillary Clinton bursts out laughing about Kavanaugh's 'revenge on behalf of the Clintons' remark 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 McConnellGraham: I hope Dems 'get their ass kicked' for conduct around Kavanaugh Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' 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 BoxerFormer Dem aide makes first court appearance on charges of posting GOP senators' info online Ex-House intern charged with 'doxing' GOP senators during Kavanaugh hearing Capitol Police arrest suspect in doxing of GOP senators 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 GrahamSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Suspects in journalist's disappearance linked to Saudi crown prince: report Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' 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 PaulSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Noisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks 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 KirkThis week: Trump heads to Capitol Hill Trump attending Senate GOP lunch Tuesday High stakes as Trump heads to Hill MORE (R-Ill.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteElection Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms GOP mulls having outside counsel question Kavanaugh, Ford Pallbearers, speakers announced for McCain's DC memorial service and Capitol ceremony 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 CornynFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees 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 SessionsDepartment of Justice right to go after Hezbollah Sessions defends media following disappearance of Saudi journalist Trump goes on 12-tweet Twitter tirade 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 demand Google hand over memo advising it to hide data vulnerability Shipping companies want Congress to increase shipping truck size Ricin attacks will continue 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.