The Senate’s Quiet Climate-Policy Dealmaker

As the Green New Deal hits a polarized Congress, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is finding incremental success working with Republican colleagues.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (right) accompanied by Sen. Bernie Sanders, questions Andrew Wheeler at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Jan. 16.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Feb. 19, 2019, 8 p.m.

As rank-and-file Democrats propose sweeping new regulations to combat climate change, one of their colleagues in the Senate is quietly pushing through more incremental environmental laws all the way to President Trump’s desk.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and frequent advocate for environmental causes, has found success working behind the scenes to pass legislation to limit the release of greenhouse gasses and clean up pollution. And while he has yet to endorse the Green New Deal pushed by House Democrats, he said he believes a debate over national climate policy ahead of the 2020 election in the Republican-controlled Senate could prompt significant work to stem the effects of global warming.

“The things that I’m doing ... I believe create at least a pilot light for potential Republican support on larger measures,” Whitehouse said in an interview Thursday. “But nobody should make the mistake of believing that all of these things dialed up to their maximum effect will make a significant difference against the hazard that is coming at us. … [E]very step that I can make in the direction of solving the problem I think is worth taking.”

Whitehouse, who delivers a weekly “Time to Wake Up” speech on the Senate floor about the existential threat posed by climate change, has cosponsored 89 bills since coming to the Senate in 2007 that became law. Some of those successful legislative efforts just in the last year promoted nuclear energy and carbon-capture technology in the hopes of reducing carbon emissions, both which continue to be pushed by members of both parties on committees governing energy policy.

“I’m looking for common ground with people that want to actually solve a problem and not just have an issue, and I think he’s very serious about wanting to solve this problem,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso.

Whitehouse said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, recruited him to last year’s carbon-capture bill because it required a “climate hawk” to broaden appeal for the technology, which Whitehouse said was no longer an “industry talking point to discourage and proper and full solution” but a way to reduce the harmful effects of fossil fuel production.

“By pushing carbon capture and sequestration and utilization and being able to get a tax advantage from that really has a huge environmental plus,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who sponsored the legislation. “And so there were a lot of stakeholders that joined both from the environmental side and then from the energy side.”

Nuclear power has similarly served as a bridge between environmentalists and most Republican lawmakers because, in Whitehouse's words, it “brought the Senate over the hurdle of denying that there is a value to carbon-free power.” The Democrat is also increasingly optimistic about methods that could convert nuclear waste into energy.

“It was a very natural fit to work with him on trying to expand and increase the availability of nuclear power,” said Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, who signed onto enacted legislation with Whitehouse that promotes research into spent nuclear fuel.

Whitehouse said the key to recruiting bipartisan partners is finding “safe political space” to address evident problems by courting Republican senators representing states particularly impacted by environmental hazards. For example, he approached Sen. John Kennedy to sponsor funding to protect communities from sea-level rise “because few states are more coastal than Louisiana.”

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, at a joint appearance with Whitehouse at an Alliance to End Plastic Waste panel this month, said Whitehouse approached him four years ago. The former Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner had arrived in Washington along with a new Republican Senate majority, and Whitehouse urged him to tackle marine debris along his state’s and the country’s vast shores.

“We saw very broad support across our very often divided committee for this,” Whitehouse said of the Environmental and Public Works Committee at the Alliance event, “and that I think was a strong signal for both of us that this was good to go.”

The resulting Save Our Seas Act directed federal funding to clean up marine debris. It passed both chambers unanimously last fall before Trump signed it.

“Literally every stakeholder is pulling on the same oar on this solvable issue,” Sullivan said. “And that doesn’t happen a lot here, especially on big environmental issues.”

Whitehouse met Trump for the first time at the bill’s Oval Office signing, at which Trump thanked Whitehouse and Sullivan for “spearheading” the “very important” legislation to tackle the “vast, tremendous, unthinkable amount of garbage … floating right into our coast.”

It was a meeting even Trump found surprising. “Can you imagine Trump and Whitehouse in the same area?” the president asked before reaching out to shake the Democrat’s hand.

Trump at the signing said that, at Whitehouse and Sullivan’s behest, the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico will “include commitments by the parties to cooperate to address land- and sea-based pollution and improve waste management.”

The two coastal senators are also working on an update to that law, dubbed SOS 2.0, that could include incentivize private-sector waste reduction innovation, dispatch aid overseas to cleanup projects, and research methods for physically catching upstream trash before it feeds into the ocean. Whitehouse gave the bill “a pretty good prognosis” as it’s presented to the bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus, which includes Jim Inhofe of landlocked Oklahoma, before it comes to the floor.

“Everybody can look at it and go, ‘Oh my God,’” Whitehouse told industry stakeholders this month. “Inhofe and Whitehouse, same bill? I guess there’s room for me in there.”

Whitehouse, who won his primary and general campaigns last year by double digits, said he has received “surprisingly little blowback” from the Left for his support for carbon capture and nuclear technology.

But his bipartisan outreach is not without controversy. Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at the environmental advocacy organization Friends of the Earth, said Whitehouse’s record on sequestration was “long and problematic.”

“The evidence certainly points towards the simple reality that this is not a viable solution to the climate crisis on the necessary timeline,” Ross said. “Therefore, it's unclear who the audience is for this kind of legislation.”

Whitehouse is effusive toward his Republican colleagues, who control two of the three bodies necessary to pass a bill. Whitehouse at the Alliance event praised Sullivan’s “spectacular leadership” and for “pushing so hard on those open doors” at the Trump administration.

But Whitehouse’s bipartisan relationships haven’t stopped the third-term senator from lambasting Republicans’ general reluctance to join efforts to curb the effects of climate change. In an interview, he accused the GOP of backing “climate-denying” executive nominees and on the floor has railed against the party’s inaction on rising global temperatures.

Atop the environmental agenda after this week’s congressional recess is the Green New Deal, an ambitious proposal from newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, the dean of Senate’s climate-change caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week he’ll bring the measure up for a vote, which lacks backing from senators who have signed on to Whitehouse’s more-piecemeal environmental initiatives.

Whitehouse for his part has yet to join Democratic presidential hopefuls in cosponsoring the resolution in the hopes of remaining a “facilitator in the climate debate,” according to an aide.

But the Democrat thinks McConnell’s tactic to hold a vote in order to divide Democrats will instead “rap the beehive” and show that Republicans are “heading into 2020 with nothing but industry talking points and denial on climate change.

“So I think actually we could very well smoke out the probably dozen Republicans who would very much like to, I think, start working on this if they were bipartisan prospects if they weren’t to be punished too badly by the Republican donor community,” Whitehouse added.

Brian Dabbs contributed to this article.
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