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. 
National Journal
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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