Senate Democrats will talk about the importance of addressing global warming until 9 a.m. Tuesday. But the issue is fraught with difficulties for four Democrats who won't appear.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
On Monday night, Senate Democrats are hosting a rare pajama party of sorts, conducting an all-night “talkathon” on climate change – minus the pajamas, and definitely minus some of their colleagues.
Twenty-eight Democrats and two left-leaning Independents, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his top lieutenants, are scheduled to speak in shifts until about 9 a.m. Tuesday. The event is not a filibuster, nor is it related to any legislation. The intent is to urge a divided Congress and nation to “wake up” on this issue.
Some notable Democrats, however, are no-shows: Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. It’s not that they want their shut-eye. It’s that they want to win their very competitive races come November.
“Climate change is a mixed bag” for Democrats, says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “While it certainly motivates parts of the Democratic base, it also is a big negative for them with other voters.”
It all depends on the state, she explains.
Senators Landrieu and Begich are locked in tight races in energy-producing states that depend on fossil fuels for jobs. The Alaska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, for instance, is spending more than $400,000 on advertising that hits Begich for being “on record supporting a carbon tax,” according to Politico. Senators Hagan and Pryor are simply “very vulnerable and are shying away from controversial issues like climate change,” says Ms. Duffy.
All four represent red states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012 and where President Obama and his agenda are not very popular.
To get a sense of their vulnerability, consider the campaign being run by Senate minority leader Republican Mitch McConnell, who is also in a tight race. He’s from Kentucky – coal country. Senator McConnell is vigorously campaigning against the Obama administration’s attempt to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
McConnell has the backing of US Chamber of Commerce, which has run television ads that McConnell is “fighting back, fighting hard" against the new carbon emissions rules by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
He has the GOP-controlled US House of Representatives on his side. Last week, it passed legislation blocking the administration’s EPA plan (the legislation won’t make it past the Senate, though).
And the Kentuckian may even eventually have the US Supreme Court on his side. In February, the high court heard arguments related to the EPA regulations. It has yet to rule.
“For everybody who thinks it's warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn't," McConnell said in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer on Friday. "Even if you conceded the point, which I don't concede, but if you conceded the point, it isn't going to be addressed by one country,” he said. “So the idea is, we tie our own hands behind our back and others don't. I think it's beyond foolish and real people are being hurt by this."
On the Senate floor on Monday he declared: “We’ve got a depression in the coal fields of Kentucky created by this administration.”
Meanwhile, Americans don’t consider climate change high on their list of national priorities. According to a January 2014 survey by Pew Research, it ranked second-to-last among 20 issues tested, with a rating of 29 percent.
Many Democrats, however, still believe climate change is a winner for them. It certainly could be in the long term, because young people are far more concerned about it than are older Americans.
Former Vice President Al Gore, at a recent Senate Democratic fundraiser in the San Francisco home of billionaire Tom Steyer, urged Democrats to make global warming a central midterm election issue, according to The Washington Post. Mr. Steyer’s advocacy group, NextGen Political Action, expects to use $50 million of Steyer’s money and $50 million raised from donors to support candidates fighting global warming. That money will be withheld from Democrats who duck the fight or even oppose it – though it will not be spent against them.
The last time that Congress seriously attempted to address climate change was in 2009, before the GOP took control in the House. Democrats in that chamber narrowly passed a bill to cap carbon emissions. It never made it through the Senate, and in the end, the effort was thought to have contributed to Democrats’ losses in 2010.
Which explains why some concerned Democrats feel an urgent need to launch a talkathon – which is really a media campaign (follow it on #Up4climate). It also explains why some Democrats will be safely tucked in their beds while one of their colleagues makes an impassioned plea to the C-SPAN camera.