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Five takeaways for US climate policy from the Senate’s “vote-a-rama”

Date
27 March 2013
Five takeaways for US climate policy from the Senate’s “vote-a-rama”

By Evan Juska, Head of US Policy, The Climate Group.

A special set of rules in the Senate that are used for considering budget resolutions, on Friday allowed Senators the rare opportunity to vote on numerous amendments covering a wide range of issues, from nuclear proliferation to the health of the sage-grouse population.

After 13 hours of back-to-back votes, “vote-a-rama” ended at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, with more than 500 amendments proposed, almost 80 separate votes, and the first Senate-approved budget in four years.  

(If you’re interested in the special rules, the full list of amendments, or why most of them were described as “deficit-neutral reserve funds,” you can click, here, here, and here.)

While these votes are non-binding and taken in a rushed environment, they nevertheless provide a useful picture of where the Senate stands on a number of important issues.

Below are five takeaways related to energy and climate change policy.

 1.     There are not enough votes to strip EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs).

The Senate rejected an amendment proposed by Senator James Inhofe “prohibiting further greenhouse gas regulations for the purposes of addressing climate change” by a vote of 47-52. This outcome is consistent with past Senate votes on this issue, including Senator Lisa Murkowski’s joint resolution in 2010 (47-53) and Senator Mitch McConnell’s similar amendment in 2011 (50-50).

 2.     But that doesn’t mean that new GHG standards for power plants are safe.

For example, Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly and Heidi Heitkamp voted against the Inhofe amendment, but recently sent a letter to President Obama opposing his proposed GHG standards for new power plants – demonstrating that there is a difference between support for the EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs in general, and support for specific rules. Under the Congressional Review Act, the Senate only needs 51 votes to disapprove of a new rule, so if a few more Senators oppose the new GHG standards, Congress could reject them.

 3.     There are not enough votes for a stand-alone carbon tax – even if it’s revenue-neutral. 

This won’t come as news to anyone following the carbon tax debate in D.C., but it’s nice to have some more concrete numbers on it. Senator Whitehouse’s amendment “to establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to ensuring that all revenue from a fee on carbon pollution is returned to the American people” was rejected 41-58 – nearly 20 votes shy of the 60 needed to pass stand-alone legislation. As part of a comprehensive tax reform package, a carbon tax would stand a much better chance, but yesterday’s vote demonstrated just how much more support is still needed.

4.     Clean energy innovation and energy-efficiency are getting some love.

A number of clean energy and energy efficiency related amendments were proposed, but only two got votes. Senator Reed’s amendment to “provide funding for low-income weatherization and energy efficiency retrofit programs” and Senator Merkley’s amendment to “increase investment in high-impact breakthrough clean energy technologies” through the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program were both approved by a voice vote.

5.    But the question of where the funding will come from remained unanswered.

The most politically viable option – revenues from new oil and gas development on federal lands, channeled through an Energy Security Trust Fund – was proposed in an amendment by Senator Murkowski, but didn’t receive a vote. So we’ll have to wait a while longer to learn exactly where the Senate stands on that particular idea.  

Read more by Evan Juska in The Climate Group's Blogs.

Photo by dbking

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