WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans want to vote on energy proposals that could bolster their party’s candidates in this fall’s election.
Their problem: Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., won’t let them.
Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, is pressing for a vote to help Kentucky’s struggling coal industry just two weeks before his Republican primary contest. He’s trying to bar the EPA from issuing new carbon standards for U.S. power plants, a step that may shutter plants in his home state.
“Coal is something that the senator wants to use to localize a national issue,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “Incumbents are saddled with the negatives of incumbency. They have to try to find a way to leverage their office into a campaign positive.”
Republicans have accused President Obama and his administration of waging a “war on coal.” McConnell’s proposal is among changes Republicans want to a bill promoting energy- efficient buildings as they seek to rein in the EPA or boost domestic energy production.
Reid has said he won’t allow any amendments.
Instead, he’s promised a separate vote on whether to force approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline as way to entice Republicans to help advance the energy-efficiency bill.
McConnell, who faces Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the state’s May 20 Senate primary, has made his support for eastern Kentucky’s coal industry a central theme of his bid for a sixth term.
“It’s important to address the depression we have in the coal fields in eastern Kentucky,” McConnell told reporters last week. He said he would seek to block EPA rules that he said aim “to guarantee that there is never another coal-fired generation plant built in America.”
If he beats Bevin this month, McConnell will face Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. His campaign is gearing up to link Grimes to Obama’s energy policy, though Grimes has been a critic of the administration’s approach to coal.
“It’s important that he make that connection in order to be successful in the fall,” Gonzales said.
Grimes hasn’t been shy about opposing Obama’s coal policies, accusing the president on her website of “crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs.”
Both Grimes and Bevin have blamed McConnell for recent declines in Kentucky’s coal-industry jobs.
“Coal employment rates are at historic lows because Mitch McConnell has failed to stand up for Kentucky coal,” Bevin campaign spokeswoman Sarah Durand said Tuesady in an e-mail. “Mitch McConnell can talk all he wants about supporting coal, but he can’t hide from his failed record on this issue.”
McConnell and three groups backing him — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit 501(c)(4) group Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and the super-political action committee Kentuckians for Strong Leadership — have run 3,027 pro-coal spots in Kentucky this cycle, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG. The company tracks advertising on local broadcast stations.
Republicans are trying to take control of the Senate and need to gain a net six seats to do it.
About a third of the pro-coal ads in Kentucky have run in the past week.
“I don’t have to tell you there’s a war on coal in America, and I tell you, I will be the leader of the forces that take on the war on coal,” McConnell says in an ad his campaign released in February.
Although coal jobs have declined, the industry still plays a significant role in the state’s economy and its politics.
In 2012, there were 22,095 jobs in Kentucky directly related to coal mining, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That was 16 percent of all U.S. employment in the industry.
Coal is also a cornerstone of power generation for Kentucky energy consumers. A full 92.4 percent of Kentucky power-sector generation in 2012 stemmed from coal, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Coal-fired power plants, a top source of mercury and acid gases as well as the chemicals blamed for acid rain, face a series of EPA rules the Obama administration has proposed to get them to clean up.
American Electric Power, Southern and coal producers such as Peabody Energy are bracing for rules to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants set to be issued in June.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week strengthened the EPA’s drive to cut air pollution, voting 6-2 to back the agency’s so- called Good Neighbor rule, which targets air pollution that crosses state lines.
McConnell’s race is one of two contests this year where coal-industry politics dominate.
In West Virginia, Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is making a promise to fight Obama on the power-plant rules as she tries to win the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D. Her position puts her in line with the likely Republican nominee, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
While employment in the coal industry is declining, it remains a force. That’s because of a combination of campaign spending and a congressional coalition that includes almost all Republicans — led by McConnell — and just enough Democrats to help coal producers block legislation they don’t want.
Since 1989, the coal industry has donated $23.9 million to candidates for House and Senate seats, 80 percent of that to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
The underlying legislation, which is aimed at reducing energy use in commercial, industrial and federal buildings, is a rarity in Washington. An equal number of Republicans and Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of S. 2262, with environmental groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, backing the bill.
Part of its support stems from the fact that the few controversial provisions included in an earlier draft — such as mandates for new energy-saving building codes and provisions that added to the U.S. deficit — were removed.
The reason the bill, first introduced in 2011, has stalled has less to do with what’s in it than what senators want to attach.
“It’s a solid bill that would move the needle forward on energy efficiency,” said Franz Matzner, a lobbyist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But it should not be used as a hostage in an attempt to stop much more consequential action on climate change and clean energy.”
— With assistance from Laura Litvan, Jim Snyder, Annie Linskey and Mark Drajem in Washington.