Senators have kept the U.S. Capitol open all night 35 times in the past 100 years to debate the purchase of merchant vessels and an atomic energy bill and to try blocking the Civil Rights Act. More recently, they have raised concerns with an impending government shutdown and the use of unmanned aerial drones.
Overnight Monday into early Tuesday, 30 Democratic senators and one Republican devoted a little more than 14 hours to climate change. Some, like Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) focused on natural habitats at risk in their home states. Others, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), sought to highlight how the issue could affect U.S. national security. One Republican, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), showed up to briefly dispute the claims of Democrats.
Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) began the proceedings Monday evening by recounting recent weather issues -- drought in the Midwest, wildfires in western states, lower-than-normal water levels in the Mississippi River, historically low temperatures in Georgia and 60-degree weather in Alaska in January.
“We have the capability and the responsibility to act. But we must do so before it is too late," Reid said, adding that the issue is "a question of our own survival."
But Democrats weren't debating any actual legislation. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the senators who organized the talkathon, admitted to reporters Monday that attempting to pass climate change legislation in the current Senate would be "premature."
"I think we’ve got a little more work to do to open up some political space on this," he said.
Part of the problem for Democrats is that several colleagues, including Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), face difficult reelection races this year in states where President Obama and his policies remain deeply unpopular. None of those four senators participated in the overnight session.
But that didn't stop Republicans from attempting to tie them to Democrats who showed up. The National Republican Senatorial Committee attacked Begich, for example, for voting for previous Democratic-sponsored climate change bills, including a proposed carbon tax.
"Begich's radical stance on job-killing energy legislation reminds Alaskans why they need to replace him with a Senator that they can trust," the NRSC said.
But Democrats believe that focusing on the issue will help them. They cite national polling that shows Americans are increasingly concerned with the issue and generally believe that changes in the globe's temperatures and weather patterns are man-made. The party is also receiving an injection of cash being spent by outside groups backed by wealthy environmental activists.
One of those activists, billionaire businessman Thomas Steyer, thanked Democratic senators for hosting "a real conversation on this critical issue."
"The dangers of climate change are real, and our country can no longer afford to be held hostage by politicians who deny basic science," he said in a statement, adding that his political advocacy group, NextGen Climate, plans to continue raising the issue.
Steyer has committed $50 million of his own fortune and plans to raise another $50 million to help Democratic candidates in this year's congressional elections -- support that Democrats are eager to have as conservative political groups are already spending millions of dollars attacking them on television in battleground states.