Republicans are trying to find solutions of their own to climate change instead of just attacking President Obama's environmental policies, but the party hasn't been able to agree on specific plans or policies.
Now in control of Congress, some Republicans are beginning to think that simply throwing bombs at the Environmental Protection Agency and Obama's regulations won't work any longer, staffers on Capitol Hill say. Instead, they believe they must develop their own ideas on how to combat climate change, especially to help moderate GOP senators up for re-election in 2016. Nine Senate Republicans are on the ballot in states Obama carried at least once, and House districts that were safe in midterm races likely will be tighter in the general election.
The plan is still emerging, according to interviews with nearly two dozen people that included lawmakers, lobbyists, strategists and aides, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive and evolving subject.
The rough outline is that tactics to reduce emissions should not harm the economy, but what that would entail is not certain.
"They're going to try to drag their feet as long as possible, but there are certain things out there that could bring the predominant GOP position to light," said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist and former adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "They want to at least have a unified position and they want to be able to have their ducks in a row. And if they have a solution, they want to have one that has the least impact on the economy."
Democrats think climate change can be a winning issue for them, and they plan to put GOP senators on record this week with at least one amendment on a bill authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline that asks whether senators believe in man-made climate change.
The 2016 map largely favors Democrats. It puts many Republicans in blue states elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave on the ballot during a general election that will bring more Democrats to the polls. That has some incumbent Republicans searching for a message on climate.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they were looking at the electoral map and thinking, 'How am I going to win? I can't leave all these votes on the table," said the Environmental Defense Fund's Tony Kreindler, who works with an environmental group called the Conservation Leadership Council that's stocked with former George W. Bush administration officials.
That has some of the party's most vocal members openly questioning where the party is on climate change, as some believe a change is required if the GOP plans to stay in the majority.
“I think there will be a political problem for the Republican Party going into 2016 if we don’t define what we are for on the environment,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Roll Call in November. “I don’t know what the environmental policy of the Republican Party is.”
In September, communications staff for Republicans accepted a request from Rich Thau, a polling expert with a roster of industry clients, to present them with a strategy on climate change. While staffers routinely hold such briefings, those familiar with the meeting called it "unusual." Policy staff was invited, which was a break with the norm.
Staffers were also incensed that Thau's suggestions — that curbing emissions could spark a "clean energy revolution," for example, according to a copy of the presentation obtained by the Washington Examiner — sounded like they came straight from the Democrats' playbook.
A senior GOP aide downplayed the significance of the meeting, while others spoke of a "responsibility" to put forward a plan now that Republicans are in the majority in both chambers.
"The question is, 'What is a solution that works?' I think that's why fellow Republicans haven't embraced a solution on climate change because they haven't heard a solution they like," said Bob Inglis, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina who now advocates for market-based policies to reduce emissions. "We heard cap-and-trade and it is an awful solution. Then along comes clean air regulation, and that's even worse."
Not all Republicans are convinced the party has an emerging, unified stance on climate change, GOP aides said. And any stance they do take doesn't change the party's game plan of attempting to roll back EPA and other environmental regulations. Rather, lawmakers might find agenda items in which climate or energy might be part of a broader discussion.
"I do think there are those [who] think there is some kind of climate change happening and are tired of fighting the science or just don't want the fight and who would rather focus on the economics — I don't think that means they are ceding the argument that manmade climate change exists, though," said one Republican Senate aide in a comment echoed by several others.
Some of the moderate Republican senators facing potentially stiff competition in 2016 have begun speaking more freely about climate change. There's a bit of awkwardness in how they approach what has been a minefield for conservative lawmakers who fear a primary opponent out-flanking them to the right, as they recall incumbents who backed a sweeping cap-and-trade proposal that fizzled in the Senate getting sacked in the 2010 primaries.
In June, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who is up for re-election, addressed a handful of groups of young conservatives — who, according to polls, are more likely to back solutions to climate change than their older brethren — to discuss market solutions to lowering emissions. He touted legislation he sponsored and helped pass when he was in the House that forgave foreign debt in developing nations if they used that money to replant forests, which helps take carbon dioxide that warms the planet out of the atmosphere.
"I say that to you not just because it sounds fun to protect biodiversity and tropical forests," Portman said.
"[It has] an enormous impact on the environment because that otherwise destruction of those forests is one of the leading causes of what?," Portman says, pausing before answering his own question. "Emissions. And when you look at it, it's probably number two or three in the world, power plants probably being number one."
Sen. John Thune, who is also up for re-election, was named by O'Connell as the leading voice advocating for the GOP to take a position on climate policies that includes the the costs and benefits of certain actions.
The South Dakota Republican, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said on "Fox News Sunday" that, "Well, look, climate change is occurring, it's always occurring... There are a number of factors that contribute to that, including human activity. The question is, what are we going to do about it and at what cost?"
The discussion isn't limited to the Senate, though hard-line conservatives are usually safer in the House. Still, environmental groups have some competitive House races in their sights.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, for example, will be in green groups' crosshairs. The Michigan Republican faced arguably his toughest contest in 2014 since winning his House seat in 1986. Climate change activists sided with his Democratic opponent and, even though he still won by more than 15 percentage points, environmental groups plan to target Upton's seat again in 2016. His office didn't return a request for comment.
Many Republicans acknowledge that human activity contributes to climate change, and even more do so in private. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican on the ballot in 2016, believes that humans contribute to it — though how much is a question "left for science," she told reporters. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who was elected to the upper chamber in 2014, has said he agreed with Murkowski's view and has pledged to support clean energy.
But Democrats and environmental groups say that admission doesn't go far enough, as scientists have said humans are largely responsible for current warming trends, chiefly through burning fossil fuels.
Inglis, who is now executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, has said he's seen a noticeable shift since the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation in 2010. Then, Republicans were in outright denial of climate change, he said. Last year, Republicans rebutted arguments by saying, "I'm not a scientist," which he and other GOP operatives have said was a poor tactic.
Now, however, Inglis said Republicans are willing to state plainly that humans are contributing to climate change. But as a casualty of the Tea Party wave in 2010 that he said had much to do with him stating climate change was real — even though he voted against cap-and-trade — Inglis understands why Republicans are being cautious.
"We're in communication with a number of offices that are trying to figure out how this can work. They need to do it better than I did it. I pushed too hard, too fast, and you see what happened to me in the primary," Inglis said.