Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell moved Thursday to force a Senate vote on one of the prime regulations in President Barack Obama’s climate plan, a move that would force vulnerable Democrats to take a public stance on the controversial rule heading into the midterm elections.
McConnell is launching his attack as a disapproval resolution under the Congressional Review Act, a seldom-invoked law that allows the Senate to repeal a regulation with a simple majority vote.
Obama would certainly veto the resolution if it passes, and Republicans wouldn’t have the votes to override him. But in the meantime, Democrats facing tight reelection fights would have to vote for or against the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to throttle greenhouse gas emission from future coal-burning power plants. Some of those Democrats have already been trying to distance themselves from Obama’s environmental agenda and the troubled rollout of his health care plan.
“So the majority leader and his Democratic caucus now have a choice,” McConnell said. “Are they going to stand with the coal families under attack in places like Kentucky and West Virginia and Colorado, or are they going to continue to stand with the powerful left-wing special interests that want to see their jobs completely eliminated.”
Republican challenges to EPA rules under the CRA have failed to secure majority support in the Senate in recent years, and this is the first time a senator has filed such challenge to a rule that hasn’t become final yet. EPA isn’t scheduled to put out a final rule on the coal plants until September — it published the regulation in the Federal Register only last week.
“Mitch McConnell has made a sport out of abusing Senate rules, and now he’s just inventing new ones as it suits him,” said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director. “That’s not how lawmaking works.
“McConnell’s political maneuver is like asking for instant replay before the football is even snapped,” she added.
But McConnell argues that he has the Clean Air Act on his side.
He sent a letter Thursday to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro laying out his argument that he should be act now because EPA proposed the regulation “under a very unusual provision” of the Clean Air Act. The provision, McConnell argues, means that any power plant whose construction has begun after the regulation is published is already subject to the rule.
“Thus, the proposed GHG rule immediately changes the legal landscape for anyone seeking to develop a fossil fuel power plant,” McConnell wrote. The proposal would also “have enormous economic and practical ramifications,” he added.
McConnell’s CRA challenge is co-sponsored by 40 fellow Senate Republicans.
The National Association of Manufacturers applauded the move, saying the administration has been working on the power plant rule for almost two years despite industry pleas that the technology for capturing and storing carbon emissions isn’t ready to be deployed in power plants.
”It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but manufacturers are glad to see that Sen. McConnell is not backing down,” the group said.
McConnell’s maneuver was the second novel attack in two days against the EPA rule — showing that Obama’s critics aren’t going to let his climate policies go through without a fight. On Wednesday, the state of Nebraska filed a suit in federal district court seeking to block the proposed regulation, a departure from the usual strategy of filing such challenges in appellate court after a rule has become final.
On the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell said the administration’s intent was to block new coal plants and kill coal-related jobs. “The Obama administration appears to be sending signals that its latest regulation is actually just the beginning in a new expanded front in its war on coal,” he said.
Obama has made it clear that the EPA rule on future power plants is just the beginning. Later this year, EPA plans propose the first-ever regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. That would be a far greater hit on the coal industry, whose plants make up about 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas output.
The regulations, which amount to one of the most wide-reaching efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. history, are certain to face legal challenges that could add years to the timeline.
McConnell’s move comes as the leading Democratic challenger for his seat – Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes – is hosting an event late Thursday afternoon to “share her vision” for coal-rich eastern Kentucky.
The GOP leader’s announcement of the challenge also came on the same day that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and other administration officials defended Obama’s climate strategy as urgent and justified during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
McCarthy touted estimates that 97 percent of climate scientists think “that human-caused climate change is occurring,” and said her agency plays a “critical role” in cutting carbon pollution.
“The president believes that we have a moral obligation to our children to do what we can to reduce carbon pollution for the sake of their future,” added Nancy Sutley, the outgoing chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.