Now that Republicans have gained the majority in the Senate, they will be looking to clock legislative victories and demonstrate that they can effectively lead. Democrats will attempt to undermine them without looking obstructionist, and try to portray the Republican Party as conservative and hopelessly out of touch. In the Senate there is perhaps no place this battle will most likely take place than in the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Jim Inhofe, the Republican Senator from Oklahoma has reclaimed the chairmanship on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he held from 2003 to 2007. Senator Inhofe is famous in the environmental community as a climate change denier, publishing a book titled, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” While many prominent Republicans have tempered their public statements on climate change, often by claiming their lack of scientific knowledge restricts them from passing judgment on it, Senator Inhofe has done the opposite, even going so far as to compare the EPA to the Gestapo.
While Democrats may see an opportunity on the issue of climate change, the 2014 elections may have signaled that Republicans have little to fear. In states with large oil and fossil fuel production, such as West Virginia and Alaska, Democrats were largely on the defensive, and were those most affected by the Republican wave. As such, many newly elected Republicans in the Senate may see their opposition to climate change as a virtue rather than as a liability. While in the Senate many Republicans may feel comfortable with their positions on climate change, Republicans looking to the 2016 elections see a cause for concern. If Democrats can successfully tie the entire Republican Party to a radical environmental policy view, Republicans running in purple states such Illinois or running for president may be adversely affected.
Democrats hope Republicans, particularly Jim Inhofe, will go after big environmental issues, however Senator Inhofe will have ample opportunity to damage and disrupt policies near and dear to environmentalists in small but meaningful ways. Moreover, there are many ways Inhofe can target environmental policies that will cast Democrats in a bad light. For example, Inhofe could attach repeal of certain environmental regulations to a continuing resolution bill, forcing Obama to either approve the bill or be blamed for a government shutdown. As Chair of the committee that deals with environmental issues, Inhofe will have a large amount of leeway to define how the Republicans appear on climate change. He can stop most any bill that comes through his committee that he believes to be too progressive, as well as schedule multiple hearings with self-selected witnesses to promote his views. Inhofe will largely get to choose when and how the Senate deals with environmental issues, and thus has many republicans anxious and many democrats both fearful of the harm he will cause and hopeful that he will give them ammunition come 2016.
The Republican majority on the Senate presents new challenges and opportunities for both Democrats and Republicans, and one focus point may very well be Jim Inhofe and the Environment and Public Works Committee. Look for gaffes by Jim Inhofe as well as attempts by the Democratic Party to tie Republicans to his radical views on climate change. Conversely watch for Republican attempts to change environmental policies in quiet but important ways.