Senator Chafee: Making Life Difficult for the President and the Party

Breaking ranks with your caucus and the president’s agenda is nothing new for politicians, but in times such as these, when control of Congress is separated by a few seats, every vote taken or opinion expressed that goes against the party’s position can create seismic disturbances.

Such a situation could be developing today in the Senate. CQ Today is reporting that Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a center-left Republican from Rhode Island, and a member of the powerful Environment and Publics Works Committee (EPW), is pushing to cap carbon dioxide emissions. Though not a new revelation – Senator Chafee openly supported the “Clean Air Planning Act of 2002” – the recent development should cause concern for Americans interested in continued economic growth and prosperity.

A little history on the issue is in order. During the 107th Congress, Senator James Jeffords (I-Vt.), then EPW Chairman, introduced his “Four Pollutants” bill, S. 556, which would have limited emissions by electric utilities: mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide (which is not even a pollutant). Essentially, Jeffords sought to implement the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon dioxide reduction mandate without much public scrutiny. S. 556 would have unilaterally reduced U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels – the exact levels called for in Kyoto. (Note: In 1997, the Senate resoundingly voted against Kyoto-type language by a 95-0 vote.) The sheer audacity for a member of the Senate to include this provision in a bill is striking. In fact, the senator was practically doing for Europeans and former Vice President Gore what they could not do for themselves: force the United States to kowtow to European Union demands. The bill languished and ultimately died.

Currently, the EPW gavel is now in the hands of Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a stanch opponent of the Kyoto Protocol. However, EPW is closely divided with 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Sen. Chafee’s position would give Democrats the necessary majority votes on the committee to move a new “four pollutants” bill to the Senate floor for debate. It’s difficult to say if the bill would pass the Senate, but certainly there will be senators willing to support capping emissions.

The significance of Chafee’s position should not be understated. Notwithstanding probable House opposition to the bill, Sen. Chafee’s support for capping emissions is a clear departure from the caucus and makes things much more difficult for Republican senators and President Bush.

Sen. Chafee’s affirmative vote for a new “four pollutants” bill would resoundingly rebuke the president’s position on the issue and undermine Bush’s clear skies initiative. The “four pollutants” issue doesn’t bode well for Republican senators either, especially those running for reelection in 2004. Moreover, President Bush will have to answer to critics on their terms during the forthcoming Senate debate and during the 2004 presidential elections; I can certainly see Democratic presidential hopefuls Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, and Graham using the vote to bludgeon the president. Even if the bill was to die in the Senate or on the footsteps of the U.S. House, the damage will have already been done: the door is open for legislation that seeks to limit carbon dioxide emissions even though the jury is still out on the link between man-made carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.

Americans should be fearful of the impending decision in EPW. If a “four pollutants” bill becomes law, the consequences would be disastrous. Studies have indicated that if carbon dioxide levels are cut to 1990 levels, the economic effects would be astonishing: the costs would approach nearly $400 billion dollars a year. Beware America; Sen. Chafee’s renewed support for “four pollutants” is a step in this direction.