Senate Dems lose forced vote against EPA power plant rule

Senate Dems lose forced vote against EPA power plant rule
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats forced a floor vote Thursday to block the implementation of a Trump administration environmental rule that aims to weaken regulations on power plant emissions.

The vote, which failed 41 to 53, was largely seen as a protest of the Trump administration’s rollbacks on several environmental protections and climate change mitigation efforts, and offers a roadmap of actions Democrats might take if they win back the Senate in 2020.

“There may be no more worthy issues than protecting our environment,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Thursday morning.

“Time is running out for the U.S. to meet the existential threat posed by climate change and that’s why this rule is such a grave grave mistake.”

Democrats were able to bring the vote to the floor through the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a seldom-used legal maneuver that requires the signature of just 30 senators. The CRA allows Congress to review and overturn rules implemented by the executive branch within 60 days after they have been finalized. The so-called disapproval resolution needs only a majority vote to pass.

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Thursday’s vote was meant to express disapproval of the EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule and would have required at least four GOP defections to succeed.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (Maine) was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting for the bill, with Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinFormer coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE (W.Va.), Doug Jones (Ala.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) breaking ranks with Democrats and voting against it.

“I think they made a grievous error in reversing the progress that we were making on clean power, so I do not support overturning those rules,” Collins said.

Jones said he didn't support the administration's weakening of power plant regulations, but didn't support the method lawmakers were taking to stop it.

"I don't like this flip-flopping back and forth between this administration and the next. We have to get stakeholders at the table," he said Thursday.

"Folks in Alabama are concerned as well [about climate change], we just have to do it in the right way."

The finalized Trump administration rule, unveiled in August, replaces the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plant (CPP) rule, which aimed to reduce climate-causing emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

Trump administration officials hailed the new rule as a much-needed upgrade to the heavily restrictive Obama policies. Coal is a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Schumer blasted the replacement rule, saying it largely benefited the fossil fuel industry.

“By employing shady science, the Trump administration obliterated these safeguards so vital to protecting our globe and our world,” Schumer said on the floor.

“In its place the Trump administration enacted a new rule that will allow big polluters to wreck our air, dirty our water and poison our earth with little or no accountability.”

Critics of the CPP rule pointed to the Obama-era standards as proof of an administrative bias against coal, as the standards ultimately pushed to phase out the fossil fuel in favor of cleaner energy such as renewables and natural gas.

We know the full effects of the CPP would have stretched far beyond coal country. Its ripples would have been felt by Americans paying their power bills,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments MORE (R-Ky.) said on the floor Thursday morning.

“Lower-income and minority populations would have been hit hardest by the double-digit energy increase in 4 of every 5 states.”

McConnell knocked the Democrats’ forced vote as proof that the party had moved too far left.

“Unfortunately, we know there is a considerable appetite to inflict huge economic hardship on American workers and families just so we can better comply with this new green religion."

“Let’s vote to keep this ill-conceived, left-wing policy on the shelf, where it belongs.”

Senate Democrats’ momentum behind climate change comes as Schumer is making an open push for majority leader in the next Congress if his party were to take the Senate in 2021.

In September, the lawmaker announced that as majority leader his first step in office would be to put a major climate bill on the floor.

Thursday’s vote also jump-starts a series of other anticipated CRA votes on the topics of health care and taxes.

Environmentalists see grave consequences if the ACE rule remains on the books, and green groups and state attorneys general have already filed suits challenging the EPA.

Critics argue the ACE rule allows only the most minor modifications at power plants to reduce emissions — some they hope the court will strike down. But environmental lawyers say if the rule stands, it would create a precedent that would allow the EPA to hamstring future administrations from pursuing more aggressive environmental policy. 

“What they want is a court ruling that says the best system of emission reduction is limited to these tiny minor tweaks that do nothing, and then the EPA can do nothing going forward to address pollution,” Lissa Lynch, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, previously told The Hill. “That’s what the EPA wants.”