Filibuster change clears path for Obama climate regs crackdown

November 23, 2013

Green groups might be the biggest winners from Senate Democrats’ decision to gut the minority party’s filibuster rights on nominations.

Their top priority — President Obama’s second-term regulations on climate change — is likely to have a better shot at surviving legal challenges once Obama’s nominees are confirmed for the crucial U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Melinda Pierce, a policy expert for the Sierra Club, said the addition of Obama’s three nominees would be an “improvement” to the D.C. Circuit, which is second only to the Supreme Court in influence and power.

“But filling up all 11 seats, a full panel is an improvement to the current situation in the court,” Pierce said. “And we hope these additions will ensure that the climate regulations are upheld.”

Pierce also defended the three nominees — Patricia Millett, Robert Wilkins and Nina Pillard — saying they “are by no means activists.”

The decision by Senate Democrats to end the filibuster on judicial and administration nominees was decried by Republicans, who described it as a “power grab” aimed at loosening the checks on presidential power.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday said it was “clear” that Democrats were triggering the “nuclear option” to advance Obama’s agenda.

“In short, unlike the first two years of the Obama administration, there’s now a legislative check on the president. And the administration doesn’t much like checks and balances,” McConnell said.

The D.C. Circuit, which handles the majority of legal challenges to regulations, currently has eight members split evenly between Democratic and Republican appointees.

Green groups suffered a major defeat at the circuit court last year when rules to cut soot-and smog-forming power plant emissions that cross state lines were shot down. Those rules had been a pillar of Obama’s air pollution agenda, and are now before the Supreme Court.

Advocates are hoping to avoid a similar defeat when the separate, upcoming carbon emissions standards face litigation at the court, which is a near certainty.

The environmental movement was heavily involved in the fight over limiting the filibuster.

Sierra Club was part of a coalition of liberal groups and unions that pressured Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to limit the use of the filibuster through a majority vote.

Pierce said the end of the 60-vote filibuster for nominees could change the way Obama approaches judicial nominations for the rest of his term.

“It may free Obama up to be more ambitious about putting forward folks that share [the administration's] philosophy and be less fearful because of the 60-vote threshold,” Pierce said.

The same goes for nominations to agencies, which might begin to move through the Senate faster.

That’s good news for nominees to senior roles at the EPA.

Ken Kopocis, who was nominated by Obama in 2011 to lead the EPA’s water office has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, but will likely breeze through now.

Similarly, the Sierra Club predicts a quick vote to confirm Janet McCabe as the EPA’s head of air and radiation once she is nominated. McCabe currently holds the job in an acting capacity.

“The office is central to the many air pollution regulations, for example the pending carbon standards,” Pierce said.

“The change to the filibuster rules brought forward by Senator Reid will likely mean that whoever is nominated — and we expect that will be Janet — will have an easier and certainly shorter path to confirmation.”

The League of Conservation Voters, another green group, praised Reid’s leadership.

A spokesman for the League, Jeff Gohringer, said Republicans have made “progress on environmental issues a lot harder than it needs to be.”

Republicans disagree, and are mulling a change in tactics now that the filibuster power has been weakened.

A top GOP aide in the Senate said Republican lawmakers would have to place a heightened focus on committee votes in order to stop nominees they oppose.

“Once a nominee comes to the floor, they are almost guaranteed to be confirmed, so the whole game is at the committee level now,” the aide said.