As White House Nears Paris Decision, Hill Republicans Ease Opposition

After vowing to kill the deal, some Republicans weigh staying in.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
May 7, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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