Bloomberg BNA —House and Senate Republicans tell Bloomberg BNA they intend to make the Environmental Protection Agency's newly proposed power plant carbon dioxide standards a key issue in the fall 2014 midterm elections.
Many Senate Democrats, meanwhile, say their party can fight “misleading” attacks on the regulations, touting the public health benefits of the proposal and allowing candidates from coal-reliant regions space to push back against the regulation in their campaigns.
Coal state Democrats recognize they will continue to be attacked for the proposed rules, even if they publicly condemn them, and they intend to continue to oppose the rules. But it remains unclear if the candidates can sufficiently distance themselves from the national party.
“We'll see a lot of Democrats cutting and running from these regulations,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, a frequent critic of the EPA, told Bloomberg BNA. “I really believe there's such an overwhelming opposition to overregulation that it's going to make a big difference” in races.
In interviews over the past two weeks, the lawmakers responded to proposed EPA regulations that are a cornerstone in President Barack Obama's climate action plan. The regulations, unveiled June 2, would set a carbon dioxide emissions rate for each state that reflects the reductions that can be achieved from their unique mix of electricity generation. The EPA is proposing interim emissions rate targets to be met during the initial phase-in period between 2020 and 2029 and a final goal to take effect in 2030.
Politically, the regulations have sparked a battle in Congress. Republicans argue the regulations will cause electricity prices to increase and harm the U.S. economy, while Democrats say the regulations enjoy widespread public support, produce important health benefits and mark a crucial step in addressing climate change.
Significant Factor in Fossil Fuel States
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate Republican leadership, told Bloomberg BNA the power plant regulations would play a significant role in close races within states reliant on fossil fuels.
Inhofe said close election contests could hinge on opposition to EPA regulations, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), another member of Senate Republican leadership, said he would continue to press the issue into the fall due to the effect the regulations would have on jobs and the economy.
Republican House members, too, vowed to make EPA regulations an issue in fall elections and said the regulations would harm the chances of many Democrats in close contests.
“Obviously, I wouldn't want to be a Democrat in coal regions of this country,” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) told Bloomberg BNA.
Shimkus said the rule's flexibility for state compliance has the potential to ease pressure on some Democratic candidates but said many would still struggle to distance themselves from a party seen as hostile to coal interests.
“[State flexibility] might ease the pressure off of fossil-fuel Democrats, but a lot of the damage has already been done,” Shimkus said. “It's a branding issue.”
Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.) told Bloomberg BNA they expect the EPA regulations would be crucial issues in Senate races in their states this fall due to the potential impacts of the power plant proposals on coal jobs.
Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), running against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) for Louisiana's Senate seat, previewed the type of attack many Democrats are likely to see against the regulations.
“Sen. Landrieu supports Barack Obama's agenda 97 percent of the time,” Cassidy told Bloomberg BNA. “Her vote for these [EPA] appointees directly translates into higher energy [and] utility costs for the American family.”
Some Democrats Not Overly Concerned
Many Senate Democrats disagreed and told Bloomberg BNA they did not think the power plant regulations would harm the chances of Senate and House candidates if the party continued to aggressively push back on what they consider to be false claims about job losses and economic harms.
“They will misstate” the regulations, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg BNA. “They'll use scare tactics, but what we know is every single time there's been a landmark environmental law—whether it's Clean Air Act, Clean Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act—the special interests always do this barricade of lies and they're all wrong.”
Another Democrat actively pushing action on climate change, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), told Bloomberg BNA it would be hard to attack Democrats for the regulations because of how the EPA structured them.
“I think the EPA has done a sensible enough job that a lot of the interests involved are going to be accommodating to the process,” Whitehouse said. “There are sensible ways for governors to participate, sensible ways for electric utilities to participate, sensible ways for the independent service organizations that run the grid to participate. If they're in, then even in coal areas it makes the deniers and the extremists more out of sync with reality and with the American people.”
Boxer, Whitehouse and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) all pointed to widespread public support in polling for addressing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants as another reason Republican attacks on Democratic candidates would fall flat.
A June 2 Washington Post-ABC News poll found 70 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
“Ultimately, I think the American people are on the President's side,” Murphy told Bloomberg BNA.
Coal State Democrats Prepare Defense
Despite the confidence from some members of their party, many coal state Democrats recognized they would be attacked for the power plant proposals and immediately distanced themselves from Obama's proposed guidelines shortly after their June 2 release.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), in a competitive reelection contest in coal reliant West Virginia, told reporters he would be attacked whether he publicly condemned the regulations or worked with the administration to improve them.
“You're never prepared for every attack around this place, but, you're right, I've been around a number of years and I know that attack's coming regardless of what I do,” Rahall said. “It's a fine line one has to walk.”
Rahall said members of the moderate Blue Dog Democrat coalition had met to discuss the regulations and how to defend themselves against attacks. The West Virginia Democrat also announced his intent June 2 to introduce legislation with McKinley blocking the regulations.
Another West Virginia Democrat, Senate nominee Natalie Tennant, criticized the EPA regulations in a June 2 statement and vowed to continue to fight them.
“I will stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy, and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs,” Tennant said. “I refuse to accept that we have to choose between clean air and good-paying jobs when I know West Virginia can lead the way in producing technology that does both.”
Tennant will compete against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) in the race for retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) seat.
Another Democrat in a close fall Senate contest, Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes, also said she would continue to strongly oppose the regulations if she defeats Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the fall.
“President Obama's new EPA rule is more proof that Washington isn't working for Kentucky,” Grimes said in a statement. “When I'm in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the President's attack on Kentucky's coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my number one priority.”
Despite those reassurances, Republican groups have already begun running ads against Grimes for what they described as her tacit approval for Obama's anti-coal agenda.
“They're already talking about [the regulations],” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “The war on coal to people who live in coal-producing regions of our country [is] very, very real.”
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