Amid the Deep Freeze, One Senator’s Warm Outlook for Climate Legislation

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) participates in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on December 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on foreclosure justice and causes and effects of the foreclosure crisis. 
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Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Feb. 13, 2014, 12:45 p.m.

The pro­spects for cli­mate le­gis­la­tion seem so grim that few Demo­crats even talk about bring­ing a bill to the floor these days.

But Sen. Shel­don White­house, a Rhode Is­land Demo­crat and self-de­scribed “cli­mate hawk,” has a the­ory about why the polit­ic­al cal­cu­lus will change in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.

He sees a win­dow open­ing in 2015 or 2016 to move a bill that sets fees on car­bon emis­sions, and he offered a polit­ic­al road map on Wed­nes­day night.

“I am very con­fid­ent that we can win a lot soon­er than people think,” White­house said on a troop-ral­ly­ing call with act­iv­ists hos­ted by Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion, the ad­vocacy group that sprang from Pres­id­ent Obama’s reelec­tion cam­paign.

White­house is of­fer­ing a con­trari­an view. Cap-and-trade le­gis­la­tion col­lapsed in the Sen­ate in 2010, and big cli­mate pro­pos­als have been in a deep freeze ever since.

So why is he op­tim­ist­ic that a big vote swing is pos­sible? One reas­on is the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s loom­ing car­bon-emis­sions reg­u­la­tions for power plants.

“When those big power plants are go­ing to face ser­i­ous EPA reg­u­la­tion, for their own­ers, sud­denly, yeah, maybe a car­bon fee doesn’t look like such a bad deal,” White­house said.

He be­lieves vari­ous oth­er pieces are fall­ing in­to place that, com­bined with a sus­tained push from act­iv­ists, could make le­gis­la­tion a real­ity.

Those pieces, he said on the call, in­clude more big cor­por­a­tions com­ing around on cli­mate and stepped-up polit­ic­al work by groups like the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters.

White­house also ar­gues that pub­lic opin­ion — in­clud­ing among young Re­pub­lic­ans — is shift­ing fast enough that the GOP can’t pos­sibly field a cli­mate “den­ier” as their 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate.

That means con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans will move to­ward the cen­ter to provide cov­er for their stand­ard-bear­er, the­or­izes White­house, who is part of a new co­ali­tion of Sen­ate Demo­crats try­ing to play of­fense on cli­mate change.

“Put all of those things to­geth­er, and I think we have a real chance to have a good car­bon bill come through Con­gress after this [midterm] elec­tion and be­fore the pres­id­en­tial [elec­tion], in 2015 or 2016,” White­house told the Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion act­iv­ists on Wed­nes­day’s call.

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