As Obama Ramps Up Climate Battle, McConnell Readies Counterattack

Washington – Your move, Mitch McConnell.

The just-released Clean Power Plan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a far-reaching attempt to cut the amount of carbon pollution pumped into the atmosphere, all in a bid to help curtail climate change. It’s part of President Barack Obama’s legacy-building climate change agenda, designed to make the United States an international leader in addressing the issue in advance of major talks set for Paris at the end of the year.

The plan’s formal release comes with what the administration said will be an “all-out climate push” by the White House, with the president scheduled to hit the road to sell his vision for attacking climate change.”Climate change is not a problem for another generation,” the president says in a video the White House released this week to detail the plan’s environmental and health benefits. “Not anymore.”

And while he’s on the road, McConnell – the Senate majority leader, a Republican from coal-rich Kentucky – will be doing whatever he can to undermine it.

McConnell laid out his case in a statement Monday on the Senate floor, saying that the rule would hurt workers and possibly even the environment, as energy production is outsourced to nations with poor environmental records.

“It represents a triumph of blind ideology over sound policy and honest compassion,” McConnell said. “And in Kentucky, these regulations would likely mean fewer jobs, shuttered power plants, and higher electricity costs for families and businesses. I will not sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy. I’m going to keep doing everything I can to fight them.”

Even before the White House and the EPA came out with their plan, McConnell has been laying the groundwork for a major challenge to it. First elected to the Senate in 1984, McConnell became Senate majority leader when Republicans took over the body this year – and in that role, McConnell is in a key position to oversee the interests of his party’s agenda as well as the needs of his coal-country constituents.

He joined a Senate Appropriations subcommittee this year specifically so he could oversee the EPA’s budget – and the influence that agency has over his state.

“Leader McConnell’s actions on this issue have literally changed the game,” said Bill Bissett, president the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group. “His ‘just say no’ policy that he’s suggested to all 50 governors really moved the issue forward, and I think started a drumbeat of discontent.”

Bissett added that the EPA expected “some response, some negatively, harsh letter-writing” – but nothing like it has received. “The EPA, we’ve heard, has been absolutely caught flat-footed regarding this criticism,” he said.

The Clean Power Plan was announced in draft form in June 2014 and finalized this week. It’s designed to shift power production from carbon-heavy sources such as coal to cleaner ones. That shift is already under way in many states, while other have – or will –struggle to do so.

The news this week is merely a continuation of a battle that’s been underway for more than a year. On Monday, Obama and the EPA formally announced the final version of the plan, which differs in some details from the draft but keeps the same general structure.

It gives individual states carbon-reduction targets and lets them work alone or with neighbors to modify their mix of coal, natural gas and renewables such as wind to achieve those targets. The plan seeks to cut power-sector carbon pollution by 32 percent from 2005 levels.

“Just say no” is a reference to one of the strategies McConnell is using to try and derail the Clean Power Plan.

In a March letter to governors across the nation, McConnell said he has “serious legal and policy concerns” about the plan and that “it is the EPA that is failing to comply with the law here.”

In the three-page letter, McConnell reviewed a list of reasons for what he said was the plan’s questionable legal underpinnings and urged states to “carefully review the consequences before signing up for this deeply misguided plan. I believe you will find, as I have, that the EPA’s proposal goes far beyond its legal authority and that the courts are likely to strike it down.”

Rather than submitting state-specific plans now, he said, states should allow the courts to rule on the merits of the overall Clean Power Plan.

That the plan will be challenged in court is a given, and as soon as the rule is formally published in the Federal Register some states and industry groups will pounce.

But Ann Weeks, senior counsel and legal director for the Clean Air Task Force, said it’s clear the president has the authority to do what he’s doing on the power plan. One recent U.S. Supreme Court case that challenged aspects of a separate EPA clean-air rule still let that basic rule stand.

“It’s quite clear there will be challenges to what they do,” Weeks said. “But that’s always the case. Everything the EPA does is challenged in court. Everything. Always. But is there legal authority to regulate power plants to control carbon dioxide emissions? Yes. I think that’s very clear.”

Whatever becomes of the legal push-back, McConnell and others in Congress are employing another strategy to try and derail the power plan: tacking what are known as “riders” onto other pieces of legislation, seeking to force the administration’s hand.

In a recent appropriations bill, McConnell inserted language that prohibits the administration from retaliating against states that don’t submit a state implementation plan under the Clean Power Plan, thus effectively neutralizing it.

It’s one of multiple riders on both the House and Senate appropriations bills that seek to hamstring EPA activities on the Clean Power Plan and other regulations. The White House has challenged those efforts, deriding “numerous highly problematic ideological provisions that have no place in funding legislation.”

What the rider strategy is setting up is a game of climate change chicken, one in which Republicans in Congress are trying to make Obama back down from what is a key part of his legacy.

It’s certain Obama would veto any spending bill with riders attached that kill the climate change plan, said Norman Ornstein, a centrist scholar on politics and Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.

And the Republicans don’t have enough votes to override the president’s veto, so a government shutdown could result.

“I don’t see much chance at all that they can use the appropriations process to accomplish the goal,” Ornstein said of the Republican strategy.

“I think the bottom-line reality of this is that all the leverage when it comes to these showdowns is with the president,” Ornstein said. “Republicans, in the leadership at least, understand full well that if you shut down the government, they will get blamed.”

McConnell could attempt to negotiate with the White House on a continuing resolution to keep the government running, offering to trade spending on other areas for an easing of the climate change rules.

But Obama is not likely to agree to that, and many Republicans – including senators running for president – won’t support a deal for more spending, Ornstein said.