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First Thoughts: Restarting the climate-change conversation

Carolyn Kaster / AP

The Capitol Dome is seen behind the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, Monday, June 24, 2013. The plant provides power to buildings in the Capitol Complex. President Barack Obama is running out of time to make good on his lofty vow to confront climate change head-on, and Congress is in no mood to help.

Obama chases his legacy on climate change with no clear path forward in Congress … Does the speech potentially endanger his EPA nominee? … Immigration clears another hurdle, and is on path to 70 vote (or close to it) … Boehner’s three paths in the House (and there’s no urgency) … Did the IRS controversy lose its punch with new report? … What does the Supreme Court do today? … Markey-Gomez finally comes to an end … GOP governors in blue states seeing turnarounds.

*** Restarting the climate-change conversation: If you closely followed the 2008 presidential campaign, you might have thought that climate change would have been a bigger legislative priority for President Obama in his first term. But that didn’t happen due to a variety of reasons -- the financial crisis, the push for health care, internal Democratic politics (the votes weren’t there), a lack of GOP support, an environmental community that didn’t have much sway in Washington and a business community that decided to fight it harder. Yet whatever the reason, perhaps the best way to view Obama’s climate-change speech today at Georgetown University at 1:55 pm ET is a way for him to restart the conversation, which, frankly, is where this policy debate has been stuck for years. In fact, you could argue that the last time there was a prolonged national conversation about the environment and climate change was when Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary came out. And that was seven years ago, in 2006.

*** Here we are again: So here we are again, another attempt to simply “start” the conversation. Yes, the president will announce some executive actions, but to do what he really wants he needs some legislative action, and this Congress is just not going to prioritize anything having to do with climate. Already, Republicans seem to be licking their political chops, labeling every proposal that’s been previewed today as some form of an increase in cost for energy that’s being passed on to the consumer. Opponents have successfully stopped previous climate-change policy efforts by simply turning the issue into a pocketbook issue by labeling it as an energy tax or a rate hike on average Americans’ power bills. And there’s no reason to think this same tactic won’t work again. As for the president, this speech is as much about his legacy as it is about trying to gather public support for tackling this issue. He doesn’t want folks to look in 20 years and wonder, “Why didn’t Obama do more or try to do more.” Of course, enviros will judge the president on this issue not by this speech, but by whether there’s a concerted follow through that was lacking in 2010.

*** Climate focus endangering EPA nominee? By the way, this climate speech, calling for a more active EPA when it comes to regulating greenhouse gases, comes at a critical time, as the administration tries to get the Senate to confirm its pick to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy (as well as other cabinet posts). So far, she’s been sitting in limbo. The hope for the administration is to get her confirmed sometime in July. But there is some concern among Capitol Hill Democrats that her fate could hinge on reaction to the president’s speech today. After all, some GOPers might believe delaying the president’s ability to get an EPA administrator will delay his ability to implement his changes. That carries its own political risks for the GOP on the issue of obstruction, but what will play to the base? Again, a lot hinges on reaction to today’s speech by the right and by business. Of course, House Speaker John Boehner may have already signaled how the party feels, when on Thursday he previewed his reaction to the speech. “I think this is absolutely crazy,” he said. “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’”

*** Immigration bill remains on track to get 70 votes (or close to it): Yesterday, the Hoeven-Corker amendment to bolster border security in the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill cleared a procedural hurdle by a 67-27 vote. And that vote suggests the overall legislation remains on track to get around 70 votes. NBC’s Kasie Hunt notes that 15 Republicans voted for the measure, no Democrats voted against it, and six senators didn’t vote -- Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Mark Udall (D-CO). So if you add the two non-voting Democrats, that potentially gets you to 69. Both Georgia Republicans said they would have voted no. But as the New York Times says, supporters are working on a plan to introduce 10 more amendments, including one that would allow Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who voted no, to strengthen the E-Verify part of the legislation. So he could be the 70th vote. Here’s the breakdown on yesterday’s cloture vote, per NBC’s Hunt:

GOP voting for:
1. Alexander
2. Ayotte
3. Chiesa
4. Collins
5. Corker
6. Flake
7. Graham
8. Hatch
9. Heller
10. Hoeven
11. Kirk
12. McCain
13. Murkowski
14. Rubio
15. Wicker

Not Voting:
1. Brown (D-OH)
2. Chambliss (R-GA)
3. Enzi (R-WY)
4. Isakson (R-GA)
5. Lee (R-UT)
6. Udall (D-CO)

*** Boehner’s three options: But when it comes to the Senate putting pressure on House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner, 70 is a good number, but not a great one (it represents less than a majority of Senate Republicans). The sweet spot for immigration reformers was 75-plus in the Senate, because it would have represented about half the GOP conference. So while 70 doesn’t stall momentum, it doesn’t necessarily build it. One can’t help but wonder that the longer this drags on, the more GOP support erodes. As for the House, according to our reporting, Boehner has three options once the Senate passes its legislation: (1) Immediately take up the Senate bill; (2) Send the Senate bill to the House Judiciary Committee to be marked up; And (3) Have the House pass a small immigration bill (maybe dealing with just border security) to bring the matter to a conference committee. But it looks like having the House act before the August recess is unlikely… The only way to have that happen is Option 1, and we’re not sure the GOP-led House takes that route. The most likely route is the small broad consensus bill that gets immigration into conference. The reason? Boehner only wants to have to fight for support for the Senate bill once, not twice, and using the a marked-up Senate bill as the initial vehicle means trying to get votes for the Senate bill twice, a more difficult task. *** UPDATE *** Boehner's office notes, that the speaker -- and every other House Republican leader -- has already ruled out Option 1. “The House remains committed to fixing our broken immigration system, but we will not simply take up and accept the bill that is emerging in the Senate if it passes,” Boehner said in a statement.

*** IRS controversy loses its punch? In the past week, we’ve seen two revelations that have taken some of the punch out of the IRS controversy. First, per the testimony of a self-described conservative Republican IRS frontline manager in Cincinnati, the employee had no reason to believe the Obama White House played any role in seeming to target conservative-sounding groups, confirming the inspector general’s conclusion. Then yesterday, we discovered the IRS “used terms such as ‘progressive’ and evidence of advocacy on Israel to flag groups’ tax-exempt applications for extra attention, complicating what had been seen as targeted scrutiny for small-government groups,” Bloomberg News writes. “The IRS’s disclosure yesterday of 15 redacted versions of its Be On the Lookout document, or BOLO, bolstered its contention that delays experienced by Tea Party groups applying for nonprofit status were a symptom of mismanagement and not politically motivated action.” Bottom line: The IRS controversy/scandal looks much more like an agency controversy/scandal (where wrongdoing was committed by bureaucrats) than a full-blown political controversy/scandal (where it goes all the way to the top). And in retrospect, that also applies to those Benghazi talking points.

*** SCOTUS watch: The Supreme Court still has three big decisions left -- the two on gay marriage and one on the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Our guess is that the court hands out its decision on the Voting Rights Act today and rules on the gay-marriage cases on Thursday. Meanwhile, yesterday’s affirmative action ruling – essentially punting back the case to the lower courts – seems to be where the public is on affirmative action. The court basically said, “We’re not crazy about it, but you have to tighten the standard for its use.” And our polling results bolsters that view… it’s an evenly divided public on the issue with support for affirmative action steadily declining over the last two decades, down from a high of 61 percent support in 1991 to a low this month of 45 percent. While there are still some big issues for this court to decide this week, one can’t help but notice just how cautious the Roberts court has been on at least two politically charged, major issues -- health care and affirmative action. Yes, the Court has been aggressive on campaign finance issues (see Citizens United) and has sided with business a lot. So yes, this court’s conservative and pro-business, but collectively – so far -- it has shown it does not reflexively to want to become a political lightning rod. Of course, let's wait and see what the court does with the Voting Rights Act....

*** Markey-vs.-Gomez race finally comes to an end: Today, Massachusetts voters head to the polls in the special Senate election to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. Democrat Ed Markey remains the favorite over Republican Gabriel Gomez in this Democratic-leaning state; in fact, Markey has led in EVERY poll taken in this contest and most of them by double digits or high single digits. And the central dynamic in the race has been Markey embracing his Democratic credentials, and Gomez highlighting his independence from GOP.  “Gabriel Gomez brought in John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, and I brought in people like President Clinton and President Obama … so the voters of Massachusetts would see the difference between the two candidates,” Markey told NBC’s Alex Moe. And here’s Gomez, per Moe: “I'm a Republican, but I'm also, you know, I'm my own person. And there are a number of areas where I don't agree with the Republican Party on. You know, I'm for gay marriage. I'm for immigration reform. I want to go down there and make sure we pass expanded background check bill, the Toomey-Manchin bill.” Remember when some believed, at the beginning of the year, that Obama selecting Kerry for secretary of state could jeopardize the Senate seat for Democrats? That probably isn’t going to happen tonight. Polling places close in Massachusetts at 8:00 pm ET.

*** On turnout and the GOP’s lack of financial help to Gomez: We have two additional points to make about today’s race: (1) Watch the turnout. As we’ve seen in other races across the country this year (L.A. mayoral contest, as well as the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey primaries), turnout has been VERY low. The phrase “historically low” has been common, in fact. Will we see the same thing in Massachusetts? (2) Given Gomez’s profile (Latino, former Navy SEAL), why weren’t national GOP donors falling over themselves to give him more money? On paper, national Republicans couldn’t have asked for a more appealing candidate, but little effort was made to help him. Puzzling…

*** Kasich’s turnaround in Ohio: Looking ahead to the 2014 midterms, the four most endangered governors up for re-election are Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett (R), Maine’s Paul LePage (R), Florida’s Rick Scott (R), and Illinois’ Pat Quinn (D). One name that probably isn’t going to be on that list: Ohio’s John Kasich (R). Per a brand-new Quinnipiac poll, Kasich’s approval rating stands at 54 percent, and voters say he deserves re-election by a 49-37 percent margin. That’s a significant turnaround for Kasich, who faced declining poll numbers in 2011 and 2012. By the way, anyone else noticed this trend with the once-unpopular GOP governors in blue states elected in 2010? For the most part, the governors, who have toned down the confrontation, have seen their numbers rise. Kasich is a perfect example of that.

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