Does Sen. Jay Rockefeller Serve West Virginians or Harry Reid?

by William Yeatman on March 17, 2011

in Blog, Features

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Late in the 111th Congress, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was building bipartisan support for a Resolution of Disapproval under the Congressional Review Act that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Due to a parliamentary quirk, the Resolution needed only a majority to pass (that is, it wouldn’t necessitate 60 votes to beat a filibuster) and it was entitled to a vote, so the Democratic leadership in the Senate could not sweep it under a rug. Moreover, there are 23 Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2012, and the political mood of the country in the summer of 2010 was shifting right. (This was evidenced by the GOP’s success in last November’s elections.) As such, an EPA reform bill was an attractive vote for many Senate Democrats from purple states, where the EPA is held is lower esteem than in, say, California or New York. As a result of these factors, Sen. Murkowski’s Resolution appeared to have good prospects.

Enter Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). Just as Sen. Murkowski’s Resolution was gaining steam, Sen. Rockefeller introduced legislation that would delay the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases for two years, rather than repeal its authority outright (as Sen. Murkowski’s Resolution would have done).

By introducing this lesser measure, Sen. Rockefeller provided Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) an opportunity. Sen. Reid had been in a bind. He didn’t want Sen. Murkowski’s Resolution to pass, because it would upset the DNP’s environmentalist base. But he recognized the tough political position of his colleagues.

Sen. Reid’s solution was to promise to hold a vote on the Rockefeller bill, at some unspecified future date. This provided Democratic Senators political cover from having to make a tough decision on the Murkowski Resolution. They could voice their support for Rockefeller’s measure, and thereby prove to their constituents that they want to reign in the EPA, without having to take a controversial vote. As a result of Sen. Reid’s promise, Senator Murkowski’s Resolution failed in the Senate, by a 53-47 vote.

Naturally, the Senate Majority Leader proceeded to break his promise. The 111th Congress ended without a vote on EPA reform. Reid had used Rockefeller’s legislation for political expediency, and then discarded it.

In the 112th Congress, it’s déjà vu all over again. This time around, it’s Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and Representative Fred Upton (R-MI) who are building bipartisan support to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. They co-wrote a bill, H.R. 910 (the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011), that would have the same effect as the Murkowski Resolution. Last week, they gained the support of two senior House Democrats (Rep. Colin Peterson (D-MN)and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV)), and this week, the legislation passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee with strong bipartisan support.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unexpectedly introduced the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 as an amendment to S. 493, legislation that provides federal funding for research and development programs for small businesses. As was the case in the last Congress, EPA reform has good political prospects in the upper chamber, due to the fact that 23 Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2012, and also because the paramount concern of voters is the economy.

So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was in a bind, again. And again, he turned to Rockefeller. Last night Rockefeller indicated he will offer his legislation to delay EPA climate regulations as an amendment to S. 493. According to an Energy and Environment News report this morning (subscription required), Senate leadership is thinking about offering the Rockefeller amendment “side by side” with the McConnell amendment. That way, some politically vulnerable Senate Democrats could vote for the Rockefeller effort, and some could vote for the McConnell amendment. Neither measure would pass, but all Senate Democrats get to vote for EPA reform, and thereby attain political coverage.

As of noon today, the vote on S. 493 had yet to take place. It is unclear from the latest news reports whether Senate leadership intends to hold a vote today or after next week’s recess. [Update: It is now being reported that the vote will be delayed until after next week's recess]

While I can’t fault Senate Majority Leader Reid for this cynical strategy (it’s his job), I don’t see how West Virginians aren’t appalled by their senior Senator’s actions. Thanks to the Obama administration’s war on coal, the entire West Virginia Congressional delegation supports H.R. 910/McConnell amendment…except for Senator Jay Rockefeller.

Worse still, it’s not as if Rockefeller is sitting out the debate; rather, he’s actively undermining EPA reform—for the second time! His constituents are getting hammered by this Administration’s EPA, more so than any other state in America. Yet he continues to spurn the interests of West Virginians in order to carry Harry Reid’s water.

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