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Policy: Environment & Energy

Senate Democrats' donor-friendly global warming show

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Congress,Byron York,Senate,Climate Change,Energy and Environment,Global Warming

On Monday night into Tuesday morning, two dozen Senate Democrats -- members of the party's newly-formed Climate Action Task Force -- plan to hold an all-night, filibuster-like talkathon on the issue of global warming. "Congress must act," Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, a leader of the group, said in a statement. "On Monday night we're going to show the growing number of senators who are committed to working together to confront climate change."

Senator after senator will undoubtedly join Schatz in insisting that Congress must act. But the Democratic talkathon is not about any action in particular. It's not being staged in support of, or opposition to, any specific legislative proposal. And if there were proposed legislation under consideration, Democrats could just pass it, or at least bring it up for debate and a vote, because they control the Senate with a 55-seat majority. But that, apparently, is not the point of the all-nighter. "The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion," USA Today reported over the weekend, "because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year."

Asked about the lack of a legislative proposal to serve as a focus for the talkathon, a Democratic aide suggested minority Republicans are at fault. "Our door is wide open for Republicans to talk through and discuss solutions as soon as they're ready to accept scientific reality," the aide said Sunday.

But it's possible the Democratic campaign has little if anything to do with ever passing a global warming bill. After all, Senate Democrats had a huge, filibuster-proof majority in 2009 and 2010 and did not act on the cap-and-trade bill passed by the Democratic House at the time. It could be that the Senate Democrats' strategy is more about encouraging the White House to take unilateral executive action on the environment than it is about Senate Democrats sticking their necks out by supporting major legislation in an election year.

"This caucus, what we have done is set up a Climate Action Task Force because we want to encourage the administration to take more action," said Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin when the group introduced itself at a news conference in January. Beyond that, Cardin said, the Task Force wants to block bills that come from the House -- no problem there, since that's something that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can do all by himself. Finally, Cardin said, Democrats want to make "incremental progress." So the talkfest on the Senate floor Monday and Tuesday could well be an extended rah-rah for the White House more than a call to any legislative action.

And then there are deep-pocket Democratic donors. A few weeks ago Reid and several leading Democratic senators attended a fundraiser at billionaire Tom Steyer's San Francisco home. The event, for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also featured former Vice President Al Gore. "With the end of President Obama's tenure now in sight, wealthy environmentalists are pushing Democrats to take bolder positions on climate change -- vowing to emphasize the issue in swing-state contests and threatening to withhold money from candidates who support the Keystone XL oil pipeline," the Washington Post reported recently. "In the Senate, Reid has pledged to allot time to anyone who wants to discuss climate change during weekly party lunches or on the Senate floor. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is laying plans for an all-night talkathon on the subject."

The Democratic aide denied that the Senate all-nighter is a result of the San Francisco fundraiser. "It's been in the works for months," he said. But Democrats know where their money is coming from. Steyer founded a political action committee called NextGen Climate Action and has announced plans to spend $100 million in the 2014 midterm elections "to pressure federal and state officials to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers," according to a New York Times report. An all-night talkathon is not exactly bold action. But perhaps it's enough for Democrats to show their big-money donors that they're doing something.

This story was first published at 12:29 a.m

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