By Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s determined efforts to combat global warming face their biggest trial yet as Republicans take full control of Congress this week. The GOP has vowed to move fast and forcefully to roll back his environmental rules and force his hand on energy development.
The GOP’s first order of business: the Keystone XL pipeline. The Republican-led House has passed legislation repeatedly to approve the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada deep into the United States. The bills died in the Senate when Democrats were in control, but that will change Wednesday when a Republican-led Senate committee holds a hearing regarding the pipeline.
“The president is going to see the Keystone XL pipeline on his desk,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said, “and it’s going to be a bellwether decision by the president whether to go with jobs and the economy.”
Obama has made clear he will use his veto power if Republicans succeed in putting hostile bills on his desk, especially on climate change.
“I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on environment and clean air and clean water,” he has said.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the Republicans likely will not overturn his veto. That would require a number of Democrats to vote against the president.
“There’s reason to be concerned,” Schatz said, “but I don’t think there’s reason to be panicked.”
By design, Obama’s biggest steps on climate rely on existing laws and explicitly do not require Congress to act. But Republicans can try to undercut those steps before they take effect. Republicans argue that Obama’s coal plant emissions limits, for example, would devastate local economies and hamper job creation.
These are some of the most likely ways the GOP will try to stop Obama on climate change, as described by Republican leadership aides:
- After Wednesday’s hearing on Keystone, GOP senators plan to work on the bill’s details Thursday and then start debating the legislation next week. The Senate could vote soon after Obama’s Jan. 20 State of the Union address. A separate House vote on Keystone could come as early as this week.
That makes Keystone likely to be one of the first bills to hit Obama’s desk in 2015. White House aides declined to say how they might respond until they see the final GOP bill. But in his most recent news conference, Obama spoke at length about how Keystone basically would save money for Canadian energy producers, with negligible effects for U.S. gasoline prices or American jobs.
- Republicans aim to pass legislation forcing Obama to certify, before his regulations on power plants take effect, that they will not drive up power prices or eliminate jobs. Attaching that requirement to a broader spending bill would make it harder for Obama to veto without jeopardizing other government spending.
- Republicans could pass bills prohibiting the government from spending money to implement Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Meanwhile, states and other groups are pursuing litigation challenging the administration’s authority to proceed without Congress.
- The GOP could try to block EPA regulations directly. The Congressional Review Act lets such resolutions pass the Senate with a simple majority vote, meaning Democrats could not filibuster, once the regulations became final. That is scheduled to happen this year for Obama’s carbon dioxide rule, which aims to cut power plant emissions nearly a third from 2005 levels.
- Lawmakers could refuse to give Obama the $3 billion he has pledged on the country’s behalf to a global fund to help poorer nations battle climate change. Obama has not yet asked Congress for any money to fulfill that pledge. White House officials said the administration will make its first request in its budget plan for fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1.
- Republicans likely will send Obama bills aimed at U.S. energy development such as promoting drilling on federal lands or making it easier to export gas and oil. Many of those bills have passed the House and are teed up for quick passage by the new Congress.
Success for Republicans on the climate front would jeopardize a key component of Obama’s legacy. And the ramifications likely would ricochet far beyond the United States.
Later in 2015, nations are supposed to sign a major global climate treaty in Paris. Aggressive action by the U.S. under Obama has upped the pressure on other governments to get serious about climate change, too. But if Obama cannot make good on his commitments at home, it is unclear whether poorer nations will feel compelled to act.
“The American government has been responsible for sending very strong political and economic signals with what they have announced so far,” former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, now a global climate leader, said. “I know that there is a risk that those will be overcome by the new political reality in the U.S.”