What the Senate’s all-nighter on climate change is really about

Dozens of Democratic senators plan to speak out Monday night into early Tuesday morning about their growing concerns with climate change.  Adopting a strategy used in the past year to great effect by Republican senators  -- Ted Cruz, anyone? -- at least 28 Democrats plan to use floor time to raise their concerns on the lack of attention being paid to climate change -- although there is no single bill or even set of bills for which they will be advocating.

Tonight's program "isn’t about a particular bill," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who helped organize the talkathon. "This is about trying to raise the profile and being to gain some momentum on this issue. Then I think we’re in a position to ask corporate America and other groups and organizations to get more engaged and open the kind of space it will take to pass a bill. But the first thing we have to show is that we’re engaged ourselves."


Tom Steyer in a 2012 portrait. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)

That all sounds nice. And we have no doubt that Whitehouse is genuine in his desire to raise the profile of climate issues. But, there is another more political reason for the decision by Senate Democrats to devote their time to the issue right now. And that issue is campaign cash.

Environmental groups spent about $20 million on ads and other activities to help Democrats in 2012 and gave about $742,000 directly to candidates during the cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. During last year's Virginia gubernatorial election, the League of Conservation Voters was the biggest outside spender in the race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, and ran television ads targeting Cuccinelli for suggesting that global warming is not linked to human activity. Already in this cycle the group is running ads on behalf of Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who is locked in a bitter Democratic primary and is a lead organizer of Monday evening's events.

Then there's the billionaire businessman Thomas Steyer. He's quickly emerged as a new and much-needed source of campaign money for Democrats eager to find ways to match the rise of conservative donors who are using new super PACs to spend millions of dollars attacking congressional Democrats on the airwaves. Steyer has put more than $11.1 million into two super PACs to help McAuliffe and now-Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in his special election race, according to a review of campaign finance records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Steyer hosted a recent fundraiser at his San Francisco home that netted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee $400,000 and where Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the six other Democratic senators in attendance openly discussed plans for tonight's talkathon, according to reports. Reid also has vowed to allow his colleagues to discuss the issue during their weekly lunches and on the Senate floor.

This year, Steyer plans to go much farther by using his advocacy group, NextGen Political Action, to spend about $100 million to help Democratic congressional candidates. Half of the money will come from his fortune as a former hedge-fun manager, while the other half will, he hopes, come from donors.

The group plans to refuse to spend money on behalf of Democrats who oppose climate regulation, but will not spend money against them either. That's why none of the Democratic senators facing especially tricky reelection races this year -- Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) especially -- plan to speak out Monday night. They won't lose anything by not showing up, but they also won't open themselves up to attack from conservatives who could try tying them to the environmental lobby.

And, for those Democrats -- and interested donors -- who really do care about the issue, it's an opportunity to show just how much they care. Even if no one expects anything to come of it.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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