Reports that President Obama is pursuing a strategy to strike an international climate accord that wouldn't require Senate ratification could harm a handful of vulnerable Senate Democrats running for seats in November.
Democrats running for election in red-leaning, energy-producing states have tried to distance themselves from Obama along environmental lines, often by decrying climate regulations the White House is pushing through executive action.
Revelations that the administration might try to go it alone on an international climate pact through a mix of voluntary pledges and provisions from a legally binding 1992 treaty certainly didn't help, and could augment arguments Republicans are making that maintaining Democratic Senate control is akin to protecting Obama's climate agenda.
"The timing is a little unfortunate here. The last thing some of these candidates need to read is this story," Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who directs the communications practice at Quinn Gillespie and Associates, told the Washington Examiner. "But the fact is if [the international climate deal is] going to happen it's not going to happen for a while, and it's probably not going to resonate in too many races."
The news could spell trouble for Democrats in Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina, where Republicans have run on a message of administrative overreach in the energy and environment arena. But Justin Barasky, a spokesman with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, downplayed the potential effect of the report on some of the nation's more competitive contests.
"We’re confident that each of these races will hinge on the clear choice between Democrats who are fighting for the middle class in their states and Republicans who are beholden to an anti-middle-class agenda dictated to them by special interest billionaires like the Koch brothers, not whatever news of the day is coming out of the White House," he told the Examiner in an email.
Still, the news provoked quick reactions from Democrats who sought to limit blowback from being tied to Obama's climate push.
"It is important that all nations do what they can to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. But the president should not take any action that undermines the American energy revolution currently underway that is creating thousands of high-paying jobs for middle class families in Louisiana and across the country," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat in a tight re-election bid against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Republicans have sought to tie their Democratic opponents to the president based on party affiliation, largely on the theme of regulatory overreach. Climate change has proven fertile ground for that tactic in some races, as Obama has pushed policies aimed at tamping down greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, which a scientific consensus says drives climate change.
“Unfortunately, this would be just another of many examples of the Obama administration's tendency to abide by laws that it likes and to disregard laws it doesn't like — and to ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree. Whether it's releasing terrorists from Guantanamo, hurting the economy and jobs with their unilateral EPA regulations, ‘recess’ appointments or Obamacare, this troubling approach does serious damage to the rule of law," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement to the Examiner.
Opponents, many of them living in red states, say the policies will make energy more expensive and restrain the economy. Supporters say the policies would help ease global warming by reducing the use of fossil fuels.
Much of McConnell's platform has been devoted to slamming the EPA, which he has said is issuing regulations that would derail his state's coal industry. His Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has slammed the rules as well, but McConnell's camp and national Republicans have sought to tie her to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
It's the same strategy Cassidy's campaign is employing in Louisiana, one of the many tight races that could end up deciding which party controls the Senate.
"President Obama is emboldened to implement his anti-energy agenda because he knows the Democrat Senate will never place a check on his policies. Senator Landrieu will continue to support his agenda 97 percent of the time," said John Cummins, a Cassidy campaign spokesman. "Once again, Landrieu's 'clout' comes up empty."
Nations are looking at next year's United Nations-hosted negotiations in Paris as a last-ditch effort to secure commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough by 2020 to prevent a 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise by the end of the century.
It wasn't much of a secret that the administration was angling for an avenue around the Senate, since Republicans would surely thwart any chances of an international treaty getting the necessary 67 votes for ratification.
Still, the State Department pushed back Wednesday against the New York Times report, which said the Obama administration's approach would be "politically binding." Jen Psaki, an agency spokeswoman, said that it was "entirely premature to say whether [the climate deal] will or won’t require Senate approval" because it hasn't been written.
"Our goal is to negotiate a successful and effective global climate agreement that can help address this pressing challenge. Anything that is eventually negotiated and that should go to the Senate, will go to the Senate. We will continue to consult with Congress on this important issue," Psaki said.