Senate Republicans want to vote on energy proposals that could bolster their party’s candidates in the November election.
Their problem: Majority Leader Harry Reid won’t let them.
Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, is pressing for a vote to help Kentucky’s struggling coal industry just two weeks before his Republican primary contest. He’s trying to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing new carbon standards for U.S. power plants, a step that may shutter plants in his home state.
“Coal is something that the senator wants to use to localize a national issue,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “Incumbents are saddled with the negatives of incumbency. They have to try to find a way to leverage their office into a campaign positive.”
Republicans have accused President Barack Obama and his administration of waging a “war on coal.” McConnell’s proposal is among changes Republicans want to a bill promoting energy-efficient buildings as they seek to rein in the EPA or boost domestic energy production.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he won’t allow any amendments.
Instead, he’s promised a separate vote on whether to force approval of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline as way to entice Republicans to help advance the energy-efficiency bill.
McConnell, who faces Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the state’s May 20 Senate primary, has made his support for eastern Kentucky’s coal industry a central theme of his bid for a sixth term.
“Kentuckians in the eastern part of my state are experiencing a depression that the president’s energy policies are making worse,” McConnell said today on the Senate floor. “Coal is a vital industry to our economy and to the livelihoods of thousands of people in my state. We should be allowed to help them. But the majority leader said no.”
If he beats Bevin this month, McConnell will face Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. His campaign is gearing up to link Grimes to Obama’s energy policy, though Grimes has been a critic of the administration’s approach to coal.
“It’s important that he make that connection in order to be successful in the fall,” Gonzales said.
Grimes hasn’t been shy about opposing Obama’s coal policies, accusing the president on her website of “crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs.”
Both Grimes and Bevin have blamed McConnell for recent declines in Kentucky’s coal-industry jobs.
“Coal employment rates are at historic lows because Mitch McConnell has failed to stand up for Kentucky coal,” Bevin campaign spokeswoman Sarah Durand said yesterday in an e-mail. “Mitch McConnell can talk all he wants about supporting coal, but he can’t hide from his failed record on this issue.”
Political analysts favor McConnell to beat Bevin, one of several Tea Party-backed Senate candidates whose campaigns have struggled to gain traction.
In North Carolina yesterday, state House Speaker Thom Tillis beat a Tea Party-aligned candidate to win the Republican Senate nomination. Tillis won a high enough percentage of the vote to avoid a runoff, allowing him to focus on a November race against vulnerable Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.
McConnell and three groups backing him -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit 501(c)(4) group Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and the super-political action committee Kentuckians for Strong Leadership -- have run 3,027 pro-coal spots in Kentucky this cycle, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG. The company tracks advertising on local broadcast stations.
Republicans are trying to take control of the Senate and need to gain a net six seats to do it.
About a third of the pro-coal ads in Kentucky have run in the past week.
“I don’t have to tell you there’s a war on coal in America, and I tell you, I will be the leader of the forces that take on the war on coal,” McConnell says in an ad his campaign released in February.
Although coal jobs have declined, the industry still plays a significant role in the state’s economy and its politics.
In 2012, there were 22,095 jobs in Kentucky directly related to coal mining, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That was 16 percent of all U.S. employment in the industry.
Coal is also a cornerstone of power generation for Kentucky energy consumers. A full 92.4 percent of Kentucky power-sector generation in 2012 stemmed from coal, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Coal-fired power plants, a top source of mercury and acid gases as well as the chemicals blamed for acid rain, face EPA rules the Obama administration has proposed to get them to clean up.
American Electric Power Co., Southern Co. and coal producers such as Peabody Energy Corp. are bracing for rules to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants set to be issued in June.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week strengthened the EPA’s drive to cut air pollution, voting 6-2 to back the agency’s Good Neighbor rule, which targets air pollution that crosses state lines.
McConnell’s race is one of two contests this year where coal-industry politics dominate.
In West Virginia, Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is making a promise to fight Obama on the power-plant rules as she tries to win the Senate seat of retiring Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller. Her position puts her in line with the likely Republican nominee, Representative Shelley Moore Capito.
While employment in the coal industry is declining, it remains a force. That’s because of a combination of campaign spending and a congressional coalition that includes almost all Republicans -- led by McConnell -- and just enough Democrats to help coal producers block legislation they don’t want.
Since 1989, the coal industry has donated $23.9 million to candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats, 80 percent of that to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
The underlying legislation, which is aimed at reducing energy use in commercial, industrial and federal buildings, is a rarity in Washington. An equal number of Republicans and Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of S. 2262, with environmental groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, backing the bill.
Part of its support stems from the fact that the few controversial provisions included in an earlier draft -- such as mandates for new energy-saving building codes and provisions that added to the U.S. deficit -- were removed.
The reason the bill, first introduced in 2011, has stalled has less to do with what’s in it than what senators want to attach.
“It’s a solid bill that would move the needle forward on energy efficiency,” said Franz Matzner, a lobbyist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But it should not be used as a hostage in an attempt to stop much more consequential action on climate change and clean energy.”