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WASHINGTON — Faced with the anti-regulatory zeal of the incoming Trump administration, members of Hawaii’s all-Democratic congressional delegation are finding themselves in the difficult position of choosing when to fight and when to retreat.
It will be a delicate task because opposing the Republicans raises the risk of incurring their wrath. That’s something the chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party — in town for the inauguration — said he is beginning to fear.
Hawaii’s two U.S. senators, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, intend to make protecting the environment a top priority, but it is clearly an uphill battle.
On Tuesday, Schatz took to the Senate floor to blast the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans have said repeatedly they want to reduce federal regulation to boost energy exports and create jobs in the energy sector.
In an impassioned speech, Schatz called Pruitt a “climate change denier” who has tried to “shred the EPA’s ability to enforce the laws that protect clean air and water.”
Schatz, who was recently named a chief deputy whip in the Democratic Party, urged his colleagues to join him in voting against Pruitt’s nomination to head an agency that he noted had been founded more than 40 years ago with bipartisan support.
Schatz said climate change and the environment are key issues for him, although he intends to work toward bipartisan agreement wherever possible.
“It’s not just that he’s a Republican or doesn’t share my views about clean energy,” Schatz said. “Look, I understand that when a Republican administration comes in, their EPA nominee is going to have a different view of what the agency should be doing.”
But if Pruitt were to be named chief of the EPA, Schatz said he feared the United States would go back to the “bad old days of water pollution.”
He reminded his audience that in the 1960s, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that it caught fire, that raw sewage was dumped into rivers and streams used for public swimming and that 87 percent of the swordfish caught in American waters contained so much mercury that they were unsafe to eat.
“To my Republican colleagues, I have had many encouraging, rational conversations about climate with you, but mostly in private,” he said. “I say this: This vote is the litmus test, the one your grandkids will ask you about. Being in the Senate is about making choices, and a lot of times, it’s gray. But this issue, this vote, is absolutely simple.”
Pruitt, who has filed numerous lawsuits against the EPA and rallied other states to join him in opposing environmental regulation, is believed to have been chosen by Trump as a sop to the most ideologically conservative branch of the Republican Party. Pruitt drew attention in December 2014 when The New York Times reported he sent harsh letters to the EPA on state government stationery that had been drafted by energy industry lobbyists.
Hirono, meanwhile, used the few minutes she was granted in a confirmation hearing Tuesday to question Ryan Zinke, the nominee for interior secretary, about alternative energy sources and climate change. He had said he supported exploring many kinds of energy sources for future use, and Hirono pressed him on the point.
“On the fuel side, I hope that when you said ‘all of the above,’ you will be committed to providing more resources and R&D in support for alternative and renewables, aside from in addition to fossil fuels,” she said. “We need to have more than a level playing field for policies that truly reflect support for all of the above.”
His answer: “Yeah.”
“I’ve always been a strong proponent on the record for research and development for different technologies, different innovations and opportunities in the complete spectrum of energy, looking at traditional sources to make sure we are better at that, certainly horizontal drilling and fracking, and all of the above,” he continued. “When it comes out of the test tube and into the field, energy needs to be affordable, reliable and abundant.”
Hirono pressed Zinke, a former Navy Seal who is an outdoorsman from Montana, further:
“But when you look 100 years into the future, when you realize climate change is upon us, it’s a threat multiplier,” she said. “Serving in the military, you are well aware that 100 years from now we need to (have done) done more than sustain the support we have provided to the fossil fuel side.”
In an interview with Civil Beat on Thursday, Schatz said climate change and the environment are key issues for him. He said he is working across the aisle to find like-minded senators who will join him in defeating Pruitt’s nomination.
“We are going to try to find three profiles in courage, three Republicans, who have been on the right side of the climate debate to see if they will vote against this climate change-denier,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen, but it’s certainly going to be one of my highest priorities.”
Going forward, picking their spots — and deciding when it makes better sense to take cover — will be one of the biggest challenges for Hawaii’s elected leaders in the nation’s capital.
Fritz Rohlfing, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, who is in Washington to participate in the Republican National Committee convention and attend the Trump inauguration, warned Hawaii’s Democratic congressional delegation to be careful about the ways in which it opposes Republican initiatives.
In an interview at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, which is serving as headquarters for the Republican Party in Washington this week, Rohlfing said he worries that Hawaii Democrats may be tempted to take political stands that have little chance of succeeding but that could injure the state’s interests.
“It’s clear they should tread carefully and be as accommodating as they can be and be focused on what’s best for Hawaii, not on their political ideology or even their own party,” Rohlfing said, adding it would not be useful for them to be “engaging in a futile resistance effort.”
He said Democratic legislators from other states, where the delegations are comprised of a mix of Republicans and Democrats, have more freedom to take extreme political stands because they can depend on the Republican delegates to take care of their state’s interests.
“It’s clear they should tread carefully and be as accommodating as they can be and be focused on what’s best for Hawaii, not on their political ideology or even their own party.” — Fritz Rohlfing, state GOP chair
He pointed to California as an example of a state where liberal legislators can take a “hard line against the president or congressional majorities,” knowing they can depend on Republican legislators in the state to bring home the bacon.
“It could be harmful to Hawaii’s interest if our delegation is perceived as being unreasonable or obstructionist,” Rohfling said.
He said he and other Republican Party activists from Hawaii will be doing what they can to advance the state’s interests within party circles because the state will lack much political clout in Washington with its preponderance of Democrats.
“We will advocate for Hawaii and do the best we can,” Rohlfing said. “Every link we have to decision-makers we will try to leverage.”
Schatz said he is fully aware of the challenges and the possibility of GOP pushback. He said he plans to “fight when necessary” but otherwise look for ways to seek common ground with Republicans.