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Republican Senators Weigh How To Undercut Obama’s Climate Talks

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Colleen McCain Nelson, The Wall Street Journal

Republican senators view global deal to reduce emissions as executive overreach

President Barack Obama and Congress are headed for another power clash on the international stage, as key Senate Republicans challenge his efforts to forge a global pact on climate change.

The White House considers the agreement with nearly 200 nations a historic opportunity to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions world-wide. But some GOP senators view it as executive overreach, and they are quietly considering ways to warn other countries that the president doesn’t speak for them and may not be able to deliver on his promises to slash emissions.

The strategy has a familiar ring. Last month, 47 Republican senators signed a letter telling Iran’s leaders that the next president could revoke any nuclear agreement and that Congress could modify it at any time. Some Senate Republicans say they want to send a similar message to the countries negotiating an agreement that would rein in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said in a recent interview that a bipartisan pact giving Congress a bigger role in reviewing a final Iran deal could serve as a precedent when Republicans chart a climate-change strategy.

The GOP effort to throw up a roadblock comes as the president pursues a lasting legacy on climate change through the international accord. It also reignites a debate about balance of powers, with the executive and legislative branches clashing over the limits of the president’s authority.

Administration officials have signaled optimism in recent weeks that climate talks are on track, with countries working toward completing a deal in December in Paris. They have expressed confidence that laws already on the books will allow them to move ahead with a plan submitted to the United Nations to cut greenhouse gases in the U.S. by nearly 30% by 2025 based on 2005 emission levels.

A central component of the president’s climate plan is a contentious Environmental Protection Agencyproposal to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants that is being challenged in court. Mr. McConnell, who argues the power-plant regulations hurt the coal industry in states including his, last month warned other countries to “proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal.” He argues that the U.S. is unlikely to meet the targets even if the EPA rule is upheld.

Administration officials say they are confident the EPA is on firm legal footing, adding that similar regulations have been challenged repeatedly and usually have been upheld. They also argue that they can seal the international agreement using existing authority.

“We’re operating in a space where we feel comfortable that we have the authority that we need to galvanize global momentum on this issue,” said Brian Deese, a senior adviser to the president. “We’re focused on trying to reach an agreement that is durable and will be good for the United States, and we’re comfortable that we can accomplish that with the authority that we have.”

Mr. Obama said last week that he had committed the U.S. to leading the world in combating the threat of climate change.

Senate Republicans, though, question the president’s plan to curb carbon emissions and the impact it would have on the U.S. economy.

Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) said Mr. Obama’s unilateral pursuit of the climate accord exceeds the scope of president’s power. Mr. Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, plans to hold a hearing this summer focused on the Senate’s advice-and-consent process and its possible application in international climate negotiations.

Additionally, Mr. Inhofe said the Iran letter, which was penned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), could be a useful model to send a message about the climate agreement.

“The Tom Cotton letter was an educational effort,” Mr. Inhofe said in an interview. Other countries think “if the president of the United States says something, it’s just automatic…His letter was over there saying, ‘the president says he can do this; he can’t do this.’ ”

Mr. Obama decried as inappropriately partisan both the letter from 47 Republican senators and Mr. McConnell’s warning to the world about the U.S. government’s ability to fulfill a climate-change pledge.

“That’s not how we’re supposed to run foreign policy, regardless of who’s president or secretary of state,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference earlier this month.

Todd Stern, the special envoy for climate change at the State Department, said other countries have raised questions during climate negotiations about Republican opposition to Mr. Obama’s plan for cutting emissions, but he said international partners can be confident that the U.S. will honor its commitment.

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