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Climate Politics: The View from Washington February 11, 2023

February 12, 2024

Legislation is not enacted in a vacuum. Successful advocacy strategies begin with understanding the political context in which proposed climate-related policies are to be debated and acted upon.

There’s a sign on the door of the Capitol that says Congress Doesn’t Work Here Anymore. I think that’s a bit harsh. A more accurate description might be Congress barely works here anymore. After all, they are managing to keep the government open—at least until March.

So, let’s review the last week on Capitol Hill, beginning with the House. Speaker Johnson suffered two embarrassing defeats on Tuesday (February 6) when he couldn’t muster the votes to pass the GOP’s own legislation.

Republicans on the right have been promising to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas since the GOP captured the House in the 2022 elections. What many thought would be a slam dunk for the new speaker and his leadership team turned into humiliation.

The vote was 214 yeas to 216 nays. Three Republicans voted with the Democrats to defeat the impeachment motion. The three were Representatives Ken Buck (R-CO), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Mike Gallagher (R-WI). Before the vote closed, Representative Blake Moore (R-UT) changed his vote to “no.” The switch was simply a procedural maneuver that allows the GOP conference “to bring the legislation back to the floor at a later date.”

The drama surrounding the vote was reminiscent Senator McCain’s (R-AZ) thumbs-down gesture that saved Obamacare and earned him the eternal enmity of Donald J. Trump. House Majority Steve Scalise (R-LA) was absent for the vote because he’s undergoing cancer treatments.

Even without Scalise, Johnson thought he had a three-vote cushion because Representative Al Green (D-TX) was having emergency surgery. Those hopes were dashed when they wheeled the Green onto the House floor—presumably fresh off the operating table—wearing surgical scrubs and no shoes.

The three nays were principled positions. Representative McClintock released a 10-page memo explaining his stance in advance of his vote.

“The logic should be obvious. A cabinet secretary’s job is to carry out the will of the president. How can he be impeached for not doing his job because he is doing it?”

In an op-ed, Representative Buck wrote, “Maladministration or incompetence does not rise to what our founders considered an impeachable offense.”

Representative Gallagher, chair of the House China Select Committee, reportedly hadn’t told leadership how he would vote before he cast his lot. Like the other no votes, Gallagher recognized that impeaching someone over policy differences is a slippery slope and not what the authors of the Constitution had in mind when they spoke about high crimes and misdemeanors.

Unsurprisingly, the three “traitorous” Republican representatives are now under attack by the uber-right. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who has led the impeachment charge against Mayorkas, singled out the three and called on all the faithful MAGA-aligned to rain down upon them—or words to that effect.

Forces close to the former president are pressuring Johnson to remove them from their committee assignments. Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump-aligned strategist, sent out his thoughts.

“THOUSANDS of Chinese nationals are INVADING our nation because of the Biden-Mayorkas open border policies. Mike Gallagher just voted against impeaching @SecMayorkas,” Bruesewitz said. “He is unfit to serve in that role — CLEARLY COMPROMISED!

Threatened with being primaried from the right Gallagher has now announced that he would not be running for re-election. Threatening Republican officeholders who fail to toe the MAGA line with being “primaried” from the right is proving an effective herding mechanism for maintaining Trump’s hegemony over the GOP.

Speaker Johnson suffered a second stunning defeat when the House failed to pass his stand-alone $17.6 billion Israeli aid bill. The bill failed by a vote of 250 to 180. Because it was being considered under a special rule, it required a vote of two-thirds rather than a simple majority.

Both the bills are likely to be voted on again. They may even pass the House. However, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Johnson will pay for his missteps with both the House conference and Mr. Trump—especially with Mr. Trump, who undoubtedly now sees Johnson as a loser, in much the same way he viewed McCarthy. And, like McCarthy, Johnson will find there’s no coming back from it.

It wasn’t entirely clear why Johnson set himself up for the defeat. The House passed another Israeli aid bill in November, pairing the cost with reductions in the IRS appropriations. The new bill stripped that pay-for provision in hopes of getting Democratic support. However, President Biden had promised to veto a stand-alone bill. He’s requested a single supplemental $160 billion appropriations bill to cover Israel, Ukraine, Asia Pacific, and border security.

House Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-LA) inexperience is showing. Being Speaker of the US House of Representatives is a tough job. It’s not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. Johnson’s a third-string quarterback playing in a political super bowl for which he is ill-prepared.

Johnson still has time to learn and grow into the position, but the clock is ticking. Clearly, the first thing he should do is to learn to count. One of the first lessons taught to me in law school was never to ask questions in open court that you don’t know the answer to. For House speakers, the rule is: “Don’t put a bill up for a vote you won’t win. “ Err on the side of caution.

Even the very experienced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has problems. The Kentuckian has “long championed the border talks to unlock stalled Ukraine aid that he’s made a top priority.”

McConnell saw the border security and immigration bill by Senators James Lankford (R-OK), Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), and Chris Murphy as the legislative vehicle to make that happen. Last weekend, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY) urged passage of the 370-page bill.

Two days later everything unraveled when former President Trump skewered the proposal, saying: “Only a fool, or a Radical Left Democrat, would vote for this horrendous Border Bill declaring it “a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party.”

“As the leader of our party, there is zero chance I will support this horrible open borders betrayal of America.”

Whatever else has the former president’s knickers in a knot, he’s opposing the bill for personal reasons—his ego can’t stand others getting credit for anything. The Donald is banking on being able to blame the Democrats for lax border security—hoping no one will notice that a great deal of order could have been restored but for his ham-handed interference.

The Democrats see it differently. They believe that voters will see that the Republicans had an opportunity to pass the most significant border security and immigration legislation in over a decade, and they chose politics. The argument is unlikely to prove convincing to Trump’s rock-solid MAGA minions, but it could be another reason for independents to vote “No Trump” come November.

It boggles the imagination that the GOP was willing to give up bragging rights for all that they were given in the proposed legislation, and for what? Not for what, but for whom?

Republican policy positions were well represented in the proposed bipartisan bill. Lankford’s group spent hours—days and weeks—going between offices to negotiate a deal. Was it perfect—nooooo. Yet, the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 18,000 agents, supported the bill, as did others on the right and left.

The Republicans declared that the only way they would support aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan would be if it were attached to a bill that would put aggressive measures in place to staunch the flow of immigrants across the nation’s borders. Well, they pretty much got what they wanted, and they turned it down.

Senate Majority Leader Schumer has now stripped the border and immigration provisions from the bill and has promised Senate Republicans that they could offer amendments, including on border security. The deal worked well enough that the aid-only bill received bipartisan support and has moved a step closer to being passed by the Senate. However, the House will remain the ramparts on which the battle for US aid to Ukraine will be fought and won or lost.

We’re seeing the early stages of a pattern that will play through the November elections. It is a pattern of Republican behavior that is Trump-centric and Trump-themed.

Barring some unimaginable series of events, Trump is the Republican’s standard bearer. Both he and those around him are more sophisticated than they were and have been moving on the state party structures. In some cases, they are setting up parallel structures and competing with the “established” party for campaign funds and voter loyalty. It doesn’t stop at the state level.

For months, Trump has hinted that Rona McDaniel’s time as the RNC Chair is up. She seems now to agree with him and has indicated she’d be stepping down after the South Carolina Republican primary at the end of the month.

It’s being reported that Trump has recommended Michael Whatley as McDaniel’s replacement. Whatley is currently the chair of the North Carolina RNC and serves as the general counsel for the Republican National Committee. New York Times reporters believe Trump likes Whatley for the “overwhelming reason that he’s a stop the steal” kind of guy.

Although Trump’s endorsement makes Whately the presumptive replacement, the decision isn’t actually the ex-president’s to make. An election will be held according to RNC rules. There are 168 voting members on the RNC, and 85 are needed to win.

The takeover of the GOP’s national and state party structure by Trump and his MAGA minions is going to lead to increased efforts at the state level to enact more restrictive voting rights laws, including limits on absentee balloting, requiring state-issued IDs, and a return to paper ballots. Look also at the possibility of making amending red state constitutions more difficult in an effort to keep abortion rights and a healthy environment to become guaranteed rights.

There’s some evidence that Trump is already planning to challenge the outcome of the 2024 election if he doesn’t win. Politico is reporting that “Donald Trump has spent much of the past week fixated, of all places, on Indiana, accusing elections officials here of conspiring against him to help his rival, Nikki Haley, in a Republican presidential primary that won’t take place until May.”

There’s no apparent reason why such an anticipatory challenge would even be considered. Some, like Joshua Claybourn, a Republican attorney and an Indiana delegate, believe the former president “reinforcing a narrative where the only acceptable outcome is his victory.” Former Indiana state representative Mike Murphy had another thought.

“The bottom line is he’s [Trump] completely unhinged. He is literally off his rocker.”

It would not be unreasonable to view forays into state election offices with suspicion as sort of dress rehearsals for post-election challenges should Trump lose in November.

Trump’s control of the party and the certainty of his being the GOP nominee are dominating Capitol Hill. The rapidity of Republicans bailing on the bipartisan border and immigration bill once Trump opposed it and the shockingly rapid collapse of McConnell on the bipartisan border security bill is the real tell in this game of liar’s poker. (Of course, it’s a different story should something happen to Trump’s chances for the nomination or his ability to run for office.)

The wild cards in all of this are the Republicans who won the election in districts President Biden carried and moderate and establishment conservatives who see Trump’s turning the Party of Lincoln and turning it into the Party of Trump (POT) as bad for the GOP and the nation.

MAGA forces are putting GOP moderate incumbents in a very awkward position. If they cave to them, then they run the risk of losing to a Democrat in November. If they don’t, there’s the threat of being primaried by a Trump-approved opponent.

The already thin Republican House majority is now three votes fewer because of McCarthy’s early retirement, Representative Bill Johnson becoming president of Youngstown State University, and the tossing out of the fabulist George Santos (R-NY). Although special elections have been called, it will be a while yet.

Scalise’s return from cancer treatments will help, but only just. The current count in the House is 219 Republicans, 212 Democrats, and four vacancies (3 GOP/1 Dem). The full complement of representatives is 435, with 218 needed for a majority.

Gallup released a poll in January 2024 that saw satisfaction with the way democracy is working in the US at an all-time low of 28 percent—down from 35 percent in January 2021. It could be that Congressional gridlock and growing dissatisfaction with how things work is feeding support for a more authoritarian executive (See Figure 1).

Between now and November, look for the White House to release new executive orders and regulations to complete as much of his remaining agenda as possible. This week EPA put out new soot rules. Look too for Republicans on Capitol Hill to try to thwart those efforts through the use of the Congressional Review Act, language in spending bills, and efforts to re-program unspent Inflation Reduction Act funds not already obligated as the means to pay for Ukrainian aid and new tax credits.

The clock is ticking.

Whatever Congress intends to do, there’s not much time remaining. The Senate is getting ready for a two-week break from Washington, and the House has just six more legislative days on its February calendar.

Regarding needed legislative action, March will be coming in like a lion, especially with the March deadlines in the continuing resolutions currently keeping the federal government open. Talk about madness!

That’s it for this edition of Climate Politics: The View from Washington.

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.