Mitch McConnell's Weak Hand

04/09/2015 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

In case you weren't sure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't care for President Obama's climate actions at home and climate diplomacy abroad. He's made that quite clear recently.

Last month McConnell wrote the nation's governors, urging them to reject Clean Air Act curbs on power plant carbon pollution. Last week, he forced a vote on a non-binding budget resolution amendment, to take away a power the Environmental Protection Agency does not even have. And this week, he warned "our international partners" to "proceed with caution" before making a global climate deal with the U.S. later this year.

Are these signs of strength, or signs of weakness?

However, much McConnell wants to block the president's Clean Power Plan here at home and blow up the emerging international climate agreement, his recent moves signal weakness, not strength.

Governors aren't rushing to "just say no."

McConnell wrote an op-ed and a letter to governors urging states not to cooperate with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. But governors aren't rushing to jump on his bandwagon. They know that if a state doesn't write its own clean air plan, then the Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate the state's power plants directly. Most power companies would rather see states shape the rules, and most governors believe they can do a better job than EPA.

And more and more governors -- witness Michigan's Rick Snyder -- are awakening to the economic and job creation opportunities of clean energy. The Washington Postreported yesterday that the wind, solar and natural gas industries created 174,000 new jobs in the last five years, while coal employment fell by 50,000.

Most governors greeted McConnell's letter with polite silence. Not California's Jerry Brown:

[T]o have the leader of the Senate, Mr. McConnell representing his coal constituents ... putting at risk the health and well being of America, is a disgrace.

And here, in full, is Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin's letter back to McConnell:

I disagree. Climate change is real. It's a threat to humanity. We should be working harder to address it, not rolling back efforts to do so. I fully support the Environmental Protection Agency's plan.

Not one governor has yet pledged to refuse to submit a state plan. So McConnell's not getting traction here.

Less than 60 votes.

One reason Sen. McConnell may be writing letters is that he is having trouble writing legislation. Last week, the Senate considered hundreds of non-binding amendments to its budget resolution in a spectacle known as the "vote-a-rama." Two amendments were proposed relating to the Clean Power Plan. Neither passed -- in fact, one wasn't even brought to a vote.

With great fanfare, McConnell himself offered an odd amendment purporting to revoke a power that EPA does not even have. The amendment would have prohibited EPA from taking away federal highway funding from a state that refuses to write its own state plan to implement the Clean Power Plan. This amendment would have accomplished nothing, because EPA does not now have the power McConnell sought to yank. In any case, McConnell's amendment garnered only 57 votes -- short of the 60 needed to pass.

The second amendment, sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), would have been far more pernicious. The Portman amendment would have made the Clean Air Act merely optional. A state could "opt out" simply by declaring that meeting carbon standards would cost the polluters money -- that compliance would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity."

By repealing the national guarantee that makes the Clean Air Act work -- the requirement that EPA step in with federal pollution limits if a state chooses not to act -- Portman's amendment would have taken us back fifty years to the dark days when polluters could play states off against each other -- when there were no national rules to level the playing field and there was no federal back-up when states failed to act.

Yet, McConnell chose not to bring Portman's amendment to a vote. We can only speculate why, but a good guess may be that it would have gotten fewer votes than McConnell's highway funding nothing-burger.

As Portman hinted in a vote-a-rama post-mortem: "I don't know, at the end of the day, if there are 60 votes for any of these alternatives."

That's the central point. McConnell has not yet found a way to pass actual legislation to trim the sails of the Clean Power Plan, even symbolically.

Messing in foreign policy

This week Sen. McConnell sternly warned leaders of other countries to "proceed with caution" before making any global climate deal. Speaking the same day that the United States announced its carbon commitments for the Paris climate negotiations -- to cut U.S. carbon pollution 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 -- McConnell plainly hoped to sow doubts in foreign capitals about the reliability of our country's readiness to act.

Members of Congress used to respect the president's constitutional role to speak for our country with one voice in foreign affairs. But, like the recent letter from 47 Republican Senators to the Iranian mullahs, McConnell's "just say no" message to foreign leaders shows that those days are gone.

The hypocrisy in McConnell's call is striking. Republicans used to argue against U.S. action to curb carbon pollution because they claimed it wouldn't be matched by action abroad. Now they're arguing against action abroad because, they claim, it won't be matched by action at home.

The bottom-line question for foreign observers, however, is how much of a threat does Sen. McConnell's opposition really pose?

The conclusion they should draw is that the Senate majority leader lacks the votes to change the Clean Air Act, and he lacks the clout to get governors to reject the Clean Power Plan. And since he lacks the leverage to block our commitment to action at home, he cannot block America's commitment to a meaningful climate agreement in Paris this fall.

President Obama has set the United States on a course for real and durable climate action here and abroad. Mitch McConnell doesn't hold the cards to change that.