Chuck Schumer: Combating Climate Change Will Be a ‘Whole of Senate Approach’

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, speaks during a press conference to demand a vote for the House-passed bipartisan Background Checks Act, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on September 9, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) plans to make combatting climate change a “whole of Senate approach” for however long Democrats retain the majority.

Schumer, who leads a chamber split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, announced on Tuesday that he had instructed his party’s committee chairs to make the issue a top priority. The majority leader, in particular, argued that by mobilizing every “relevant” committee to tackle climate change, the Senate would take “a leading role in combatting the existential threat of our time.”

“Senate Democrats are not going to waste any time taking on the biggest challenges facing our country and our planet,” Schumer said from the floor of the Senate.

“I’ve already instructed the incoming Democratic chairs of all relevant committees to begin holding hearings on the climate crisis in preparation for enacting President [Joe] Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which includes major climate legislation,” the senate leader added.

During his remarks, Schumer suggested that under his leadership Senate Democrats would undertake ambitious and sweeping actions to protect the environment.

“As we all know climate change touches virtually every aspect of our economy and involves virtually every aspect of public policy,” Schumer said, adding that “the Democratic majority will pursue a whole of Senate approach” on the topic.

Despite Schumer’s pledge, it is unclear if Democrats have the votes for such comprehensive climate change legislation. Democrats currently only have the Senate majority because of the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

To date, though, that majority appears fragile. The Democrat conference not only includes progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), but also moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Theoretically, even if the majority of Democrats more closely align with Sanders than Manchin, the Senate’s traditions and procedures strongly favor minority dissent over majority rule.

At the moment, one of the obstacles standing in the way of the majority rule is the filibuster, which requires a three-fifths vote—usually 60 votes—to end debate on legislation. As such, any major climate change effort would likely require 60 votes for passage. That figure is unlikely to be attained, however, especially since Republican and some moderate Democrats, most prominently Manchin, have expressed concerns about the impact that expanded environmental regulations will have on jobs.

Even though Schumer faces an uncertain political terrain in the Senate, his position appears in line with that of the White House. The Senate leader’s remarks on Tuesday about a “whole of Senate approach” closely mirror that of President Joe Biden, who has declared climate change will be an agenda for “all of government.”

The president has attempted to live up to that declaration by signing a flurry of executive orders meant to arrest the pace of climate change in recent weeks. Biden’s executive actions, which include canceling permits for the Keystone XL Pipeline and halting the drilling of gas and oil on federal lands, have proved controversial.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has been one of the most vocal critics of the orders. McCarthy, who came close to winning the House majority for the GOP in 2020 by lambasting policies like the Green New Deal, argued on Monday that Biden’s executive actions will kill thousands of energy industry jobs.

“If President Biden is serious about any unity,” McCarthy said while visiting an oil refinery in Houston, Texas. “Come to middle America. Come look in the faces of those workers who earn $80,000 a year, and tell them why you took their jobs away.”

Biden, for his part, has shown no sign of reversing course in the face of such criticism. The president instead has pitched his decisions as being necessary if the United States has any hopes of leading a “global response” to the climate crisis.

“Just like we need a unified national response to Covid-19 [coronavirus], we desperately need a unified national response to the climate crisis because there is a climate crisis,” Biden told reporters at the White House last month.

To help implement the administration’s “unified national response,” Biden has signed an executive order creating a civilian climate corps. The program, based on the poverty-relief programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, will focus on employing individuals to work on energy-efficient infrastructure and conservation programs.

The “Civilian Climate Corps Initiative [will] put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration … and addressing the changing climate,” a policy brief prepared by the White House reads.

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