Under intense pressure from green groups and their members, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) announced Friday that Republican proposals to gut the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were off the table in budget negotiations.
"Neither the White House nor Senate Leaders is going to accept any EPA riders," Reid said.
Reid's pledge follows 48 hours of intense pressure on the White House from major green groups, marking the first time many large environmental organizations have so openly and loudly targeted Obama and Reid -- and it produced extraordinarily rapid results.
Indeed, as recently as Wednesday, the Associated Press had reported that Obama was insisting that congressional Democrats swallow rollbacks to EPA's authority to crack down on climate emissions, mountaintop-removal coal mining, and Chesapeake Bay pollution as the price for passing a budget deal. When asked about the report, the White House refused to issue a veto threat against the rollbacks, and last Tuesday, Reid told reporters, "We're happy to look at the policy riders. There aren't many of them that excite me. But we're willing to look at them. In fact, we've already started looking at some of the policy riders."
That attitude began to change when environmentalists decided they'd gone too far:
- "Obama to Sell Out the EPA?" -- Sierra Club email blast from Conservation Director Sarah Hodgdon
- "Tell Obama & Reid: Don't Cave to Polluters" -- League of Conservation Voters (LCV) Executive Director Gene Karpinski
- "At EDF, our position is that children's health should not be a bargaining chip." -- Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp
The last quote was particularly striking given EDF's reputation as the ultimate insider in the environmental movement, and probably the green group with the closest ties to the administration.
And Energy Action, the organizers of the upcoming Powershift youth climate conference, showed that environmentalists weren't just cyber-angry; they were actual angry, announcing that "thousands of young, forgotten Obama voters," were going to protest Obama outside the White House on April 18.
By Friday, the White House was beginning to back off, and Reid's statement seems to have ended the debate, at least for now.
Nonetheless, it's still open to question to what extent the environmental movement will learn from this win. Although Democratic leadership seems to be standing up for the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, those are hardly the only attacks on the environment emanating from the White House and its Democratic allies. Last week alone, the administration announced a massive expansion of coal mining that will produce pollution equivalent to that emitted by 300 coal fired power plants in a year, and has been rushing to issue new permits to drill offshore in the Gulf of Mexico -- hardly less egregious than the contemplated EPA rollbacks.
Meanwhile, a range of Democrats have been following the White House's lead and rushing to embrace the fossil fuel industries and other polluters. Democrat Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan (LCV score 100) and Max Baucus of Montana went so far as to issue their own bills to gut the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
Over in the House, during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires (D) surprised greens by expressing support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring ultra-dirty oil from Canada's tar sands to the United States, while panel Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) declined to take a position.
Whether or not these Democrats face the kind of intense pressure and protests that the White House did over the EPA rollbacks will tell whether this has been a true learning moment for greens and the broader environmental movement. In the past, on those few occasions when environmentalists have been forced to sorta stand up to Democrats, there's been a tendency for confrontation-averse greens to creep back into our fawning shell once we win rather than to learn from the experience.
But the huge nature of this victory may be different -- and we may have a chance of making Democrats believe that this movement has a backbone made of something other than organic jello.
Glenn Hurowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy.
Originally published in Grist and available here.