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What’s McConnell’s Next Move on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan? (Updated)

What McConnell called the Obama administration's "war on coal" was a key theme in his 2014 campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
What McConnell called the Obama administration's "war on coal" was a key theme in his 2014 campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 2:55 p.m. | The Obama administration’s final Clean Power Plan unveiled Monday sets aggressive goals for reducing carbon pollution — but the first challenge on the road to implementation will be working around Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been cautioning state governments against developing their own implementation plans as prescribed by the Environmental Protection Agency, and on Monday he swung the door wide open to a legislative response.  

“We can pursue other avenues, like [Congressional Review Act] resolutions and further appropriations riders, as these regulations are published and as they wind their way through the courts. But here’s the bottom line about today’s announcement: if the Obama administration were actually serious about advancing renewable energy, then it would follow the example of what leaders like Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski has been achieving in the Energy Committee,” McConnell said. “She’s showing how we can make big strides on energy diversification, that we can do it in a bipartisan way, and that we don’t have to punish the middle class to do it.”  

As he explained in an opinion piece published by the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this year, McConnell has already inserted language into an appropriations bill that could stop the administration from punishing states that opt out.  

Fighting what McConnell called the Obama administration’s “war on coal” was a key theme in his successful 2014 re-election bid.  

Because McConnell has been unable to advance a single appropriations measure on the floor due to Democratic opposition to writing bills at lower spending levels endorsed by the GOP, a continuing resolution will be needed in late September to avoid a government shutdown. And while much of the attention in recent weeks has been on the question of using that bill to defund Planned Parenthood — drawing a veto threat last week — the EPA rules could also come into play with McConnell and another Kentuckian, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, holding the purse strings.  

The question for the GOP is whether it will risk a government shutdown with no expectation that Obama would ever cave on one of his signature issues and with the rules sure to be challenged in the courts. When faced with a similar dynamic on Obama’s attempted temporary executive amnesty, GOP leaders opted to punt and hope for relief from the courthouse.  

The White House has repeatedly promised that Obama would veto bills to block the Clean Power Plan.  

Rogers’ sprawling district covers Eastern Kentucky’s coal country, and while the process of writing spending bills is not back on track the way the two Kentuckians might have envisioned, when it comes time to make decisions about prioritizing riders in catchall bills, they have considerable influence.  

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, called Monday’s plan “an expensive, arrogant insult to Americans who are struggling to make ends meet,” but he did not make specific legislative threats, such as restrictions in September’s spending bill.  

Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., meanwhile pledged to stand against efforts to undermine the new climate rules.  

“The Clean Power Plan is the strongest action ever taken by our nation to curb the effects of climate change. We are beginning to endure the costs of carbon pollution, extreme weather and rising sea levels today and it would be gross negligence to pass these costs on to our children and grandchildren,” Reid said in a statement. “That is why I support the President’s Clean Power Plan, and will do everything I can to protect it here in the Senate.”  

President Barack Obama and his administration were prepared for the criticism of the plan that’s designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent by 2030. That is a slightly more aggressive target than previously envisioned, despite a number of changes in response to comments from stakeholders that somewhat streamlined the proposal.  

“Some Republican and industry leaders have already made up their mind on this rule. We know what to expect from them. It is a well-worn playbook of scare tactics used again and again over the past 40 years since the Clean Air Act,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said at an event last week sponsored by The New Republic. “It won’t be based on honest analysis of the science; because you’ll start to hear those critiques even before they’ve taken time to read the rule and updated analysis.”  

“They’ll tell us the Clean Power Plan will raise bills, kill jobs and cause the power to go out. That’s flat-out false,” McDonough said.  

To be sure, that criticism began long before Obama made the formal announcement in the East Room Monday afternoon.  

One of the governors who seems to have heeded McConnell’s advice to not participate in the process of developing a state-level plan is Scott Walker of Wisconsin, one of the many Republicans seeking the White House. Walker sent an official letter to Obama criticizing what was then a draft proposal back in May.  

“President Obama’s plan should be called the Costly Power Plan because it will cost hard-working Americans jobs and raise their energy rates,” Walker said in a statement Monday morning. “It will be like a buzz saw on the nation’s economy. I will stand up for American workers and stop the Costly Power Plan.”  

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Sunday the agency had created a model rule for states to implement if they choose to, something she said some states themselves had requested as the EPA collected comments on the earlier proposal for the Clean Power Plan. But in the conference call Sunday and again in a blog post Monday, McCarthy emphasized that states do not have to adopt any proscribed implementation plan.  

“But states don’t have to use our plan — they can cut carbon pollution in whatever way makes the most sense for them,” McCarthy wrote. “The uniform national rates in the Clean Power Plan are reasonable and achievable, because no plant has to meet them alone or all at once. Instead, they have to meet them as part of the grid and over time. In short, the Clean Power Plan puts states in the driver’s seat.”

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