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Maverick McCain Re-Emerges on Methane Vote

Surprise vote sinks resolution

With Sen. John McCain recuperating at home in Arizona from surgery, Senate GOP leaders are delaying consideration of the health care bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
With Sen. John McCain recuperating at home in Arizona from surgery, Senate GOP leaders are delaying consideration of the health care bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)


Sen. John McCain was thought to be a yes. But he says he was always a no. In the end, the Arizona Republican helped sink a resolution to upend an Obama administration climate change policy.

Republicans said they believed on Wednesday morning that they had the votes to pass the Congressional Review Act resolution that would undo an Interior Department regulation limiting the release of methane from oil and gas operations on federal land.

But a procedural motion to advance the resolution was defeated, 49-51. Three Republicans, including McCain, voted “no.” And the first of 15 CRA resolutions considered by Congress this year went down.

“One person surprised everybody,”  Oklahoma GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe, a senior Environment and Public Works Committee member, said of McCain’s vote against the CRA. “I was very certain the votes were there because we wouldn’t bring it up if the votes weren’t there.”

By Tuesday night, two members of the Republican caucus, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, both publicly said they would not back the measure. Still, even if all Democrats voted no, which seemed unlikely, Republicans believed they had 50 votes — and a tie-breaker in Vice President Mike Pence, who was on hand for the morning vote.

“In talking to folks, they were kind of going back and forth, undecided and then lean yes,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D, “And so we actually thought we had just enough. But as it turns out, we lost three, and we didn’t get any help from the Democrats.”

McCain told CQ Roll Call in the hallways of the Senate that he decided a long time ago to vote against the resolution. The Arizona senator also dismissed a notion spreading around the Capitol that his vote was retaliation to the news Tuesday of President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.

“I know people are angry about my vote, but that borders on the ridiculous,” McCain said of the Comey talk.

McCain said that while he opposed the extensive reach of the regulation, he feared that a clause in the Congressional Review Act that would prevent federal agencies from redoing the rule in a substantially similar form could prevent the Interior Department from making needed improvements to preventing methane waste.

Worries about ‘similar’

“While I am concerned that the BLM rule may be onerous, passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government, under any administration, from issuing a rule that is ‘similar,’ according to the plain reading of the Congressional Review Act,” McCain said in a statement, referring to the Bureau of Land Management. “I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the BLM methane rule.”

Graham, a frequent McCain ally especially on national security issues, offered a similar explanation in the weeks before the vote, citing the “bluntness” of the resolution’s “substantially” similar clause as reason for his opposition.

In the end, the ticking clock of the CRA window may have prompted the resolution’s supporters, led by Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso to go for a vote anyway. After Thursday, any CRA resolution loses a so-called fast-track status that allows it to pass with a simple majority and with no more than 10 hours of debate.

“I’m not going to talk about our whip text,” Majority Whip John Cornyn said. “Obviously, Sen. McCain had some concerns about the substance of it, and the reason we put it off so late is because we were working with our colleagues to build consensus but it didn’t gel.”

Cornyn and Barrasso both said the resolution would not be reconsidered.

“I promised a vote all the way through, and we had a vote,” Barrasso said. “We were working on a number of members all the way through.”

The Wyoming Republican also said he will immediately turn his attention to advocating that the Interior Department begin the administrative procedures to begin to unwind the regulation.

“I call on Interior Secretary [Ryan] Zinke to withdraw the rule immediately,” Barrasso said in a statement. “If left in place, this regulation will only discourage energy production, job creation, and economic opportunity across the West. The state of Wyoming and other leading energy producing states already regulate methane emissions. We don’t need this duplicative rule.”

To cast his vote, McCain had to move through a leadership huddle that attempted to convince him one last time to support the measure. When asked if there was pressure to change his vote, McCain said, “Of course.”

When asked if it had any effect, McCain said, “I voted.”

Democrats stay united

Just as surprising, Democrats, including those in tough 2018 re-election battles, stuck together.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — two lawmakers who tend to vote in favor of pro-energy legislation — voted against the motion to proceed. Heitkamp and Manchin hail from some of the leading states in natural gas production, and both face an uphill re-election battle in states Trump overwhelmingly carried in 2016.

Both senators were still undecided as late as Wednesday morning, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told reporters after the vote. Udall said they were having conversations to convince members all the way up to the vote.

“We knew the first key was a united caucus, all 48 of us sticking together and pulling some votes,” Udall said. “That’s the dynamic in every CRA. If we can stick together, we only need to get two or three, depending on the vice president.”

Heitkamp said that while she does not completely agree with the venting and flaring rule, she prefers that Interior take charge of making changes to the regulation, which many of her constituents support.

“I’m not 100 percent in favor of the rule but when push comes to shove,” she said, “the people of my state asked that there be some kind of path forward to keep some kind of BLM regulation on methane.”

“This is the first CRA to go down, and it is the most important one that came before us,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “So the fact that it wasn’t voted on, people can breathe a sigh of relief because methane will not be released into the atmosphere as easily.”

A rare defeat

The last motion to proceed rejected in the Senate was on Oct. 29, 2013, when then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the motion for his bill relating to the disapproval of the president’s authority to suspend the debt limit.

Prior to McConnell’s motion, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., had a motion to proceed on five different budget resolutions rejected in 2012. The motions got as many as 42 votes and as few as zero. This was the most recent instance in which a member of the majority party had a motion to proceed rejected.

Earlier in the 112th Congress, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw one of his motions to proceed rejected, though a previous unanimous consent agreement established a 60-vote threshold on the vote. That would make this rejection more similar to a 60-vote procedural vote on limiting debate, which are rejected fairly frequently in the Senate. 

Earlier in that Congress, Reid had another motion to proceed rejected, though in that instance, the underlying joint resolution in question was sponsored by McConnell. 

Amelia Frappolli contributed to this report.

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