There’s no question that America’s environmentalists won big in the midterm elections. “We picked up twenty new environmental votes in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate, plus four governorships,” says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, who called 2006 “the most successful midterm election in the environmental movement’s history.”
Whether the victory is big enough to change government policy during the last two years of the Bush presidency, especially on the overriding threat of global warming, is less clear. Much will depend on how worried Republicans get about running on Bush’s environmental record in 2008. “Congressional Republicans will adopt an ‘avoid embarrassing Bush’ strategy,” predicts Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. Now that Democrats enjoy majorities in both houses of Congress, Blackwelder adds, “they could get a decent global warming bill through the House and probably onto the Senate floor. If Republicans conclude they can’t defeat the bill on a straight vote, they’ll filibuster it to save Bush, and ultimately themselves, the embarrassment of vetoing it.”
With a narrow 51-to-49 Senate majority, Democrats lack the votes to block filibusters, much less override vetoes. But moving strong legislation and daring Republicans to take the heat for scuttling it would enable Democrats to position themselves as the party of environmental protection and energy independence, two themes that increasingly resonate with voters across the political spectrum, analysts say, pointing to the Senate victories of organic farmer Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Sherrod Brown in Ohio, all of whom spoke often about linking green energy development and economic revival.
But this scenario is plausible only if Democrats act in unison and are willing to take bold positions–no small assumptions. The temptation will be to embrace incremental measures that can attract bipartisan support rather than legislation strong enough to match the problems. Future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid boast strong environmental records, as do Barbara Boxer, the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Nick Rahall, chair of the House Resources Committee. But many rank-and-file Democrats have been quiet during Bush’s six years of trashing environmental protections. And John Dingell, the veteran Detroit Congressman who regains the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, has long been Congress’s most adamant opponent of increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks–a key element in any meaningful global warming policy.
Nevertheless, “going from a Congressional leadership that marched in lockstep with Bush to one led by Pelosi and Reid will mean that debates no longer start with proposals that would take us backward,” says Anna Aurilio, legislative director of USPIRG. “We won’t have to keep fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee; ANWR is safe now. Instead, we’ll have an opportunity to bring forward policies that could actually solve the problems we face.”