One important byproduct of the two weeks of Senate debate leading up to Thursday’s 62-to-36 vote to pass the Keystone XL pipeline authorization bill is the revelation that more than a dozen Senate Republicans are worried about the environment and global warming.
This development comes as a new New York Times-Stanford University poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including half of Republicans, favor government action to curtail global warming. The findings may have important implications for the 2016 presidential campaign because two thirds of those interviewed said they were more inclined to vote for candidates who campaign on fighting climate change.
Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, Republicans and Democrats have been at war over environmental issues, especially efforts to contain or reduce carbon emissions that GOP and business leaders complain adversely impact industry and the economy. Many conservatives dispute that climate change is real or that it poses any serious threat to the environment and mankind.
So it was noteworthy that 15 Republicans voted last week in favor of a resolution declaring that humans contribute to climate change, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who became, at the time, the only 2016 presidential contender to go on record espousing such a belief. Five Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — voted in favor of a resolution declaring that humans contribute significantly to climate change.
Some environmentalists say they were heartened by this, though they don’t think the votes foretell bipartisan legislation on key environmental issues any time soon.
The chances remain slim that the new Republican Congress will advance legislation to address global warming this year, despite mounting evidence of the dangers caused by unrestricted carbon dioxide emission. After all, key lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) campaigned for reelection vowing to block or undo Environmental Protection Agency regulations that harm the coal industry. And the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), has written and spoken widely on how global warming is a hoax.
Still, environmentalists say the recent votes suggests there is a core group of Republicans who would vote with the Democrats to block any efforts by Congress to repeal or dismantle existing EPA regulations or international agreements addressing clean air and global warming.
Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters said that the fact there were five GOP senators willing to go on record about climate change being both real and significantly caused by humans offers her group and others like it some reason for optimism that environmental issues might again become a bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. “We’re optimistic [the GOP senators] will build on that vote by supporting EPA’s ability to protect public health by cutting carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act,” she said.
Collins, Graham and Alexander, longtime lawmakers, have moderated their views on climate change and the environment over the years. Graham even took part in bipartisan negotiations early in Obama’s first term in an unsuccessful bid to pass controversial cap and trade legislation to reduce carbon emissions.
Kirk and Ayotte are both up for reelection in 2016, and reportedly are sensitive to constituent concerns about the growing problems of climate change.
Ayotte, a former New Hampshire attorney general who won her 2010 Senate GOP primary with the backing of Sarah Palin, also broke with her Republican caucus recently to vote against a proposal to exempt power plants that burn waste coal from certain federal emission limits. She also opposed a measure by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a member of the GOP leadership that would have complicated Obama’s new international climate agreements, including a recent deal with China.
Meanwhile, Kirk was the only Republican to support regulations on petroleum coke, a byproduct from oil refining.
Together, the senators now represent a small but important faction of the GOP no longer willing or able to dismiss the threat of global warming.
“We very much hope the senators will defend the ability of the EPA to move forward with the progress that they’re making,” Sittenfeld said. “We’re a long way from [bipartisanship on global warming], but it’s progress. I would say baby steps.”
This article was updated on January 31, 2015 at 10:45 a.m.
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