As the Trump White House finalizes its decision on whether or not to remain a party to the Paris climate-change deal, some Capitol Hill Republicans are backing off their earlier opposition, potentially imperiling one avenue to reviewing or exiting the agreement.
Key White House advisers will continue meeting this week on the matter, ahead of a self-imposed deadline of the end of May, when the G7 countries will convene. After meetings over the last two weeks, advisers remain split over whether to stay in and reduce the U.S. commitment to the deal; or to split from the international agreement, in which countries pledged to reduce their domestic emissions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Axios reported last week that President Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, who wants the U.S. to remain in the deal, will meet Tuesday with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who favors exiting.
Much of the debate centers around whether the U.S. might be obligated to limit emissions even further in the future, and whether staying involved could be used as legal fodder for environmentalists to compel Trump to maintain President Obama’s climate policies.
Ultimately, though, the decision is a symbolic one. The Obama administration pledged to cut U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025, through a series of policy measures that the Trump administration is working to undo or curtail. Among them: the Clean Power Plan, limits on methane from oil and gas, and fuel-economy standards.
Without them, the country is sure to miss its target, but there are no penalties for doing so. Leaving the agreement, then, would ultimately be nothing more than a messaging move, one that some on Capitol Hill worry could be ill-advised.
Take Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia Republican who helped lead an effort in 2015 to block funds to United Nations climate programs unless the Senate got a chance to reject the Paris deal. In an interview last week, Capito reaffirmed her opposition to the underlying agreement, saying “it disadvantages our country and certainly my state.”
But when asked if the White House should send it to the Senate for approval, she eased off.
“We might be able to affect better change by staying in, meaning that we can negotiate from within and have things make better sense for our country,” Capito said.
That’s a similar perspective to the one expressed by a group of nine House Republicans led by Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a key White House ally on energy issues. In a letter, they said the U.S. should “use its seat at the Paris table to defend and promote our commercial interests,” but should “present a new pledge that does no harm to our economy.”
Republican Sen. Susan Collins signed onto a letter with Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin warning that the U.S. could lose its competitive advantage by leaving the agreement (a Cardin aide said that the senator tried to recruit other Republicans, but none signed on). Even Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told E&E News he was concerned about the diplomatic stakes of getting out of the agreement.
It’s quite a reversal from the immediate aftermath of the deal, when 13 Republicans (including Capito) told the White House to let the Senate reject it through a vote.
That reticence could take off the table a strategy being pushed by conservatives, in which the White House would declare the Paris agreement a treaty and send it to the Senate for approval. Marlo Lewis Jr., a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that would send a stronger signal than any action by the White House alone.
“It would not only make clear that this agreement lacks broad political support … it would be difficult for the next executive to do what President Obama did unilaterally and use the stroke of a pen to put us back in,” Lewis said in an interview. “This is all about domestic legislation, not just for the next four years but the next 35 years. No president should be allowed to make this kind of commitment on behalf of the U.S. without the legislature.”
The deal was originally deliberately crafted to sidestep Senate approval, since it does not contain legally binding provisions (something the U.S. delegation advocated, given the political realities of the Senate). A State Department memo being circulated as part of the Trump administration’s decision makes a similar case, saying that submitting the deal to the Senate would “suggest the existence of new limits on the president’s constitutional authority to conclude executive agreements” and “would constrain the president’s flexibility to conclude executive agreements in other contexts.”
The White House could also trigger an exit clause in the Paris deal, which commences a three-year process, or bolt the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a one-year process.
There’s no guarantee the deal would survive a Senate vote; Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso said in an interview that he would rather see Trump use his executive authority but that the U.S. needed to leave, as did Sen. James Inhofe.
But Democrats are pushing back. Cardin, along with the nine other Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a resolution to affirm support for the agreement, arguing that leaving would set the country behind its allies.
“If the president and his aides choose the path of an informed, fact-based decision about the national security interests of the United States and the safety of the American people, then the only decision that can be reached is not just to remain in the Paris Agreement, but to lead the world in achieving the agreement’s benchmarks,” Cardin said. “It’s time to get serious and not retreat from this existential threat to the United States and humankind.”
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