Did The Senate Just Say Yes To Action On Climate Change?

The sun rises over the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers approved language saying climate change should be tackled in the 2016 federal budget. CREDIT: AP
The sun rises over the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers approved language saying climate change should be tackled in the 2016 federal budget. CREDIT: AP

It’s not a bill, it’s non-binding, and there’s no guarantee anything will actually come of it. But either way, the Republican-led Senate apparently thinks climate change should be tackled in the final federal budget for fiscal year 2016.

On Thursday evening, the Senate approved a motion to instruct budget negotiators to “insist” that the final spending bill include measures to address human-caused climate change. Specifically, it calls for funding that “respond[s] to the causes and impacts of climate change, including the economic and national security threats posed by human-induced climate change.” Via the motion, budget negotiators were also instructed to provide funds for the Department of Defense to bolster resilience of critical military infrastructure to the impacts of climate change.

This, of course, does not mean that the final budget will definitely include funding to respond to the threats of human-caused warming. All it means is that the Senate has officially stated that the budget should include that type of allocation. The lawmakers participating in the budget conference committee are under no official obligation to do so, however.

Still, the motion’s passage is notable if only because of the Senate’s historically lukewarm position toward the reality of climate science. According to a Center for American Progress analysis, a whopping 70 percent of Senate Republicans do not accept the science that states greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming.


That denial has manifested itself in Senate policy so far this session — in the first 100 days of the 2015 session, 44 percent of Senate roll call votes were cast on energy or environment-related legislation, much of which was focused on promoting fossil fuel development. And the Senate’s current majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has aggressively pledged to stop the Obama administration’s efforts to fight climate change.

So, if the Senate has overall been so against climate action, then how did this motion pass?

The first and most likely reason is that the motion was part of what’s been called a “mini vote-a-rama,” which in this case was a series of back-to-back votes on non-binding measures. The measures were all procedural, basically just telling their colleagues who are negotiating the budget which issues they should focus on.

Thursday’s mini vote-a-rama took three hours, and most of the procedural votes were on issues that had already passed in the Senate’s budget resolution. The motion to prioritize climate efforts was one of those issues that had already passed.

In other words, the vote was pretty inconsequential. The Senators probably just wanted to get out of there. So the motion to prioritize climate funding for the Department of Defense passed. Big whoop. And anyway, Republicans in general love the Department of Defense — and the DOD wants money to fight the impacts of climate change.


Another possible reason the motion passed, though, is that it was done by voice vote — meaning there was no roll call taken. So if a Republican Senator wanted to vote for the measure to include climate funding in the budget, no one would know. No one would be held politically responsible for voting for or against it.

That argument is applicable to all measures passed last night, including one telling budget negotiators to require funding for legally married same-sex couples to get Social Security and the Veterans Affairs Department benefits. But it’s particularly interesting for the climate measure, given recent reporting that showed many Republicans actually do understand the threat of climate change — they just don’t like to say it publicly. That reporting was done in the New Republic by Rebecca Leber, who spoke with climate scientists who have met with prominent Republican lawmakers in “off-the-record, sometimes unplanned, and in some strange settings” to talk about the current state of global warming.

Her conclusion from those talks? “Republicans talk to the experts face-to-face, but still find it more politically expedient to ignore reality, in order to protect themselves.”

That becomes even more interesting when you consider that several other Democrat-sponsored, similarly inconsequential motions were rejected via voice vote on Thursday evening. Specifically, as the Hill points out, four Democratic proposals were blocked, including an equal pay motion from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and a motion from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on student loan reform.

At the very least, it’s fascinating to consider. Maybe there are, in some dark corners of the Senate, more Republicans who actually think greenhouse gases cause harmful climate change. Maybe, deep down, Senate Republicans really do want climate action in the federal budget. Either way, until it becomes politically expedient for Republicans to do something about climate, then they will likely continue to brush it under the rug. At least until the next voice vote comes around.