To prevent climate catastrophe, Democrats need to learn a ruthless lesson from Senate GOP

What happens if there simply are no GOP votes to stop catastrophic climate change?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Congressional Republicans, especially GOP senators led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have all but destroyed the possibility of bipartisan deal-making on major issues.

The widely criticized and wildly unpopular GOP tax bill is the inevitable byproduct of that destruction — but the end of a livable climate for America and the world is also inevitable unless Republicans become less ruthless or Democrats become more ruthless.

“There has never been a more outrageous, revolting, unfair process to pass a corrupted bill in the history of Congress,” tweeted political scientist Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

He and Thomas Mann of Brookings explain the GOP’s culpability in their must-read New York Times op-ed, “How the Republicans Broke Congress.

A decade after writing a book that blamed “both parties, equally,” for the dysfunctional nature of Washington, they write “over the past decade it has become clear that it is the Republican Party — as an institution, as a movement, as a collection of politicians — that has done unique, extensive and possibly irreparable damage to the American political system.”

Significantly, they point out, “Republican leaders have been blunt about their motivation: to deliver on their promises to wealthy donors, and down the road, to use the leverage of huge deficits to cut and privatize Medicare and Social Security.”

The problem for humanity is that there can’t be a bipartisan climate change bill as long as the McConnell strategy continues in the Senate and as long as the GOP is in the thrall of its wealthy pollutocrat donors like the Koch Brothers–who are leading funders of climate disinformation and climate inaction.

Yet it is essentially impossible for the world to avert catastrophic climate change if the United States can’t pass legislation needed to slash carbon pollution at a considerably faster rate than we have been.

Staying below dangerous levels of global warming — which the nations of the world unanimously agreed to do in the 2015 Paris climate accord — requires every major country to ratchet their emissions down to near zero in the coming decades. And while the exponential pace of the clean energy revolution means that America (and the rest of the world) can do that super-cheaply, government policy will be needed to make an orderly transition off of fossil fuels at a fast enough pace.

That means the Democrats would have to pass the bill entirely on their own the next time they control both houses of Congress and the presidency — assuming that ever happens again in a world where GOP gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement efforts put the thumb on the scale of every national election.

And that means they would almost certainly have to use the reconciliation process in the Senate, so they could bypass an inevitable filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome and pass the bill with a simple majority.

Tragically, the Democrats were “too polite” to use reconciliation for the climate bill that had passed the House of Representatives in June 2009, as journalists Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley argued in their 2013 analysis, “The Too Polite Revolution: Why the Recent Campaign to Pass Comprehensive Climate Legislation in the United States Failed.”

Many Senate staffers we spoke with said the climate bill was doomed from the start because it was not slated for reconciliation, which would have provided immunity to filibustering and enabled the bill to pass with a simple majority of fifty-one votes rather than the standard sixty votes needed to bring it to a vote. Gaining those sixty votes became even more difficult in January 2010 when Republican upstart Scott Brown won a special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. After that, any Senate cap-and-trade bill would have to have at least one Republican backer to pass the Senate.

They go on to say, “As Eric Pooley recounts in The Climate War, Reid indicated in a March 2009 meeting with Duke CEO Jim Rogers and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Fred Krupp that he might try to pass the climate bill through reconciliation but that Rogers and Krupp managed to persuade him not to take that route.”

Pooley explains in his book that even though the White House insisted on keeping open the reconciliation option for health care, they took a different view about climate change: “Using this fast-track process for the cap, [White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel said, would be ‘a bridge too far’ — another reminder that Obama wanted healthcare reform more than climate action.”

Nonetheless, Pooley describes the meeting between Reid, Rogers and Krupp this way.

Looking directly at Rogers, he said “I don’t think we’re going to get a strong bill unless we do this through budget reconciliation” — a maneuver that would allow Reid to pass a bill with fifty-one votes instead of the sixty needed to override a filibuster. “I may try to get it done that way.

So it seems as if the Senate Majority Leader Reid was prepared to use reconciliation, but the White House, other Democratic senators, and key climate advocates were not.

A 2013 Yale study, study “Stasis and Movements: Climate Legislation in the 111th Congress,” agrees this was a fatal mistake — perhaps the fatal mistake:

Polarization and political geography have such a large impact only because of the 60-vote, filibuster-imposed threshold on passing nearly all legislation; dropping that threshold to 51 would have completely changed the political dynamics and greatly enhanced the probability of victory. That is, the filibuster can either be understood as simply part of the basic political conditions under which the climate movement operated or as the single most important cause of the climate bill’s defeat.

The point here is not to relitigate the past, but to learn from it.

Back in 2010, then Senate Minority Leader McConnell explained to the New York Times that Republicans were strategically rejecting bipartisanship on major bills to ensure that Obama appeared to the public to be a failed and partisan President:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”

As long as Senate Republicans embrace this truly Machiavellian and ultimately anti-American posture, the Democrats will have to use reconciliation to pass a climate bill and save America — to literally save the red states from themselves. Red states, especially those in the South and along the coasts, will suffer some of the worst impacts.

Obviously it would be better if the national GOP could return to an era where they put America first on matters of national security. And maybe some day in the future there will be one or more GOP “profiles in courage” senators who can defy both their major funders and misinformed voters. I commend those who are working to restore some sanity and rationality to the national Republican Party on the climate issue, like former GOP congressmen Bob Inglis.

But it is entirely possible that change doesn’t happen anytime soon, and then future Democrats will have to decide if they want to keep being too polite or if they want to save America and the world from an ever-worsening climate catastrophe.