More than a dozen Senate Democrats have a message for President Barack Obama: If he wants to take dramatic action on climate change, he’s on his own.
The latest evidence came from this weekend’s marathon series of budget votes, in which moderate and conservative Democrats sided with the GOP on the Keystone XL oil pipeline and against any prospects for a tax on carbon.
In the two Keystone votes, the Democrats helped the Republicans prevail by filibuster-proof majorities — a clear sign that Obama will have little political cover from his party’s middle if he chooses to reject the Canada-to-Texas pipeline, as climate advocates are urging him to.
The nonbinding budget votes were the first action on climate change in the new Congress, and they underscore a status quo that has held in the upper chamber since Obama’s first term, when Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on cap and trade shortly before the midterm elections.
Since then, the caucus of climate-weary Democrats has grown after the 2012 election, which ushered in a new class of moderates — like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp — who often side with Republicans on energy policy. Several more red-state Democrats are facing tough reelection battles next year, giving Reid ample reason to protect them from casting votes that could hurt them at the ballot box.
“Sen. Reid will go out of his way to protect vulnerable members if he can from such votes,” said former Clinton White House climate aide Paul Bledsoe, a senior energy fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
Some other late Friday/early Saturday votes yielded victories for the climate cause — for example, a push by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to block EPA carbon regulations received even less support than it had in the last Congress. But even then, the signal was that senators will let the Obama administration take the lead in tackling what many scientists are calling a global crisis.
In fact, Obama is widely expected to make executive branch actions — such as EPA rules on power plants — the centerpiece of his climate agenda, although there have been some indications that those could be delayed.
Former Reid senior communications adviser Jim Manley said the Nevada Democrat knows that any vote on major climate change legislation would be merely symbolic, given the likelihood of a GOP filibuster. “You probably can’t rule out a failed cloture vote,” he said.