McConnell’s Promise of Open Debate Puts GOP in Climate Bind
Policy + Politics

McConnell’s Promise of Open Debate Puts GOP in Climate Bind

  • 49 out of 54 GOP Senators denied that humans cause global warming
  • It’s McConnell’s attempt to restore regular order, missing under Harry Reid
  • But the Republicans were caught in a trap, and they could balk next time

In his first few weeks as Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell may not have been able to keep his promise about requiring members of the Senate to work on Fridays, but he was true to his word when it came to allowing legislative amendments from both parties to get votes on the floor of the Senate.

The Senate continued debate on a measure approving the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline Wednesday, and the Senate held votes on a half-dozen amendments, three of which were sponsored by Democrats.

Related: Keystone Pipeline and the ‘Myth’ of Global Warning

Of the three, one was a an actual effort to change part of the bill – Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Minority Whip, proposed language that would regulate the storage and transportation of petroleum coke, a byproduct of the production of oil from tar sands.

The other two Democratic proposals were designed to make purely political points. An amendment submitted by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse would have added a single sentence to the bill: “It is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced a more detailed amendment to the bill, which cited the State Department’s environmental review of the Keystone project, specifically the finding that global warming is almost certainly occurring and is the result of human activity. The amendment expressed the sense of the Senate that “climate change is real; and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”

Both votes were, of course, intended to force Republicans to take a position on the controversial topic of global warming. Such votes were practically never allowed in the Senate under the leadership of Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, and McConnell’s willingness to allow them to go forward suggests he truly plans to return to “regular order” in which the Senate is a place of freewheeling debate, not just legislative gridlock.

Related: Cities Face Costly Projects to Deal with Climate Change 

However, with the 2016 elections on the distant horizon, and the control of the Senate in the balance, a former aide to Senate Democratic leadership expressed doubt about McConnell’s ability to continue on the path of an open amendment process.

“I think that it is too early to tell whether he can sustain this for a while,” the former aide said. “As Senator Reid found out, sometime the folks that are boasting the loudest about how they didn't mind taking tough votes were the first to ask Reid for protection when it suited their own needs.”

Wednesday’s events also prove it’s no sure thing that just because Democrats get votes on their amendments they will like all the results.


91 percent of Americans blame Washington for gridlock and the inability of Congress to pass legislation. If regular order is restored, there’s a chance for the two parties to compromise and cross the aisle.

The Whitehouse amendment was clearly meant not only to make Republicans go on the record with regard to the reality of climate change, but also as a specific challenge to Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has repeatedly decried scientists’ claims of global warming as a “hoax.”

Related: Pope Francis to Convert Catholics to Belief in Global Warming

Prior to the vote on the Whitehouse amendment, Inhofe, now the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, rose to speak on the Senate floor. Employing a bit of rhetorical and legislative ju-jitsu, he asked to be added to the amendment as a sponsor. He then encouraged his colleagues to vote in favor.

“Mr. President, climate is changing,” he said. “Climate has always changed and always will. There is archaeological evidence of that, there is Biblical evidence of that, there is historic evidence of that. It has always changed. The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate. Man can’t change climate. I ask my colleagues to vote for the Whitehouse-Inhofe amendment.”

With that move, Inhofe essentially inoculated every Republican in the room against charges that they were caving to the Democrats on climate change, and the amendment, which was supposed to draw a stark line through the Senate, instead passed 98-1, as though it was a question on the virtues of Mom and apple pie.

The Schatz amendment, however, written more carefully than the Whitehouse effort, did exactly what it was designed to do, splitting the Senate down the middle, 50-49, with 49 Republicans voting against the scientific consensus that climate change is both real and driven in large part by human activity.

Related: GOP Leaders Fume Over Obama’s Climate Deal with China 

Five Republicans lined up with Democrats on the issue: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. 

More interesting, though, is that Republican senators up for reelection in 2016, including some from states disproportionately affected by climate change, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio and Louisiana’s David Vitter, and others from traditionally Democratic states, like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, voted against it.

McConnell may be able to get the cooperation he needs from these folks in January of 2015, but as the elections draw closer, and votes start to get more scrutiny, the willingness of his more vulnerable members to tolerate an open amendment process may wither away. 

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