06/11/2010 02:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Victory for Common Sense

Washington, D.C. -- To paraphrase then Senator Barack Obama's famous speech to the Democratic National Convention: In blue states, we go to work in the morning, and in red states, we need to breathe clean air.

That commonsense observation -- that clean air simply isn't a partisan issue -- was apparently completely lost on the Senate Republican leadership yesterday. They chose to turn the vote on a simple question -- should Congress respect the integrity of the Clean Air Act of 1990, signed into law by President Bush -- into an exercise in petty partisanship.

They failed in their ostensible purpose -- to pass a resolution by Senator Lisa Murkowski rejecting the EPA's simple finding that carbon dioxide endangers human welfare by threatening the stability of the climate. The Murkowski resolution, which would have undone all of the work that the EPA and the Obama administration have done to prepare for cleaning up carbon pollution (including recent path-breaking regulations to clean up carbon pollution from trucks), failed on a 47-53 vote.

Voting for the resolution were six Democrats -- many of whom knew better but represent states with very influential coal or oil interests. (Heroically, the senior senator from the most coal-dependent state of all, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, voted to uphold clean air. His colleague, Jay Rockefeller, joined Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor, and Blanche Lincoln in voting with Murkowski to deny scientific common sense and to gut the Clean Air Act.)

Never before has Congress voted on such a resolution. But even though the Republican leadership knew they didn't have the votes, they wanted to demonstrate to everyone in Washington that they can bully every single Republican senator into upholding the party line. And they did. Not a single Republican senator stood up to Minority Leader McConnell, regardless of the opinion of their constituents back home or of their own past record on public health issues. Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (Maine), Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), George LeMieux (Florida), and Scott Brown (Massachusetts) all represent states where clean air is popular and kowtowing to Big Oil is not. But they went along with their party leadership. They must be hoping that no one back home will notice the absurdity of their votes.

Incidentally, as evidence that even Republicans from less environmentally-inclined states knew that what they were doing was fundamentally wrong, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn summed up his position by saying, "even if it's the right thing to do, it's not the right time."

Coburn's point seemed to be that the economy this year can't handle new clean-air regulations. But the EPA has already published schedules making it clear that any regulations it issues will not even be proposed this year, and compliance dates for the limited number of major polluters that will be affected are years in the future. So the jobs vs. lungs conflict that the Murkowski forces were trying to resurrect simply won't fly. As evidence, Murkowski's resolution was opposed by the one major industry that is already subject to carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act: the auto industry,  as well as by its union, the United Auto Workers.

Murkowski was beaten. But the enemies of the Clean Air Act will be back. Hopefully, if their constituents noticed what happened yesterday, they  won't come as close to succeeding next time.