BY ALEXANDER BOLTON
Senate Democratic leaders are grappling over how to vote on a controversial climate change proposal that is being championed by progressives and mocked by conservatives.
The plan, offered by firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) will be voted on on the Senate floor later this year in a GOP-led effort to divide Democrats and get them to go on the record about the “Green New Deal.”
But Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has floated a plan with his caucus to vote present on the ambitious legislation. It remains to be seen if Senate Democrats will embrace Schumer’s strategy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday panned the Green New Deal as “the far-left’s Santa Claus wish list dressed up to look like serious policy.”
The nonbinding legislation calls for the federal government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate pollution as much as technologically feasible and provide training and high-quality education so that “all people of the United States” can participate in the Green New Deal mobilization. McConnell says the Senate will vote on the Green New Deal before the August congressional recess.
A Democratic senator familiar with internal deliberations said that Schumer reached out to his more liberal colleagues who are running for president to make sure they’re on board with the present vote strategy.
However, not all Democrats are on the same page.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who once famously filmed a campaign ad in which he shot then-President Obama’s cap-and-trade climate proposal with a hunting rifle, said Wednesday he’s likely to vote “no.”
“I got to work with reality. I got to make sure we have the benefit of affordable energy,” Manchin said.
Asked about his colleague’s plan to vote present on the Green New Deal, Manchin responded, “They can do what they want to do. I’m not a present-type guy.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the Senate co-sponsor of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution, said he’s working with Schumer and declined to say whether he would vote present instead of “yes” on his own proposal. The House measure has 89 Democratic co-sponsors while the Senate legislation has 11. The six Democratic senators who have launched presidential bids are official backers of the Green New Deal and have touted it on the campaign trail.
At a time when polls show that Democratic voters are highly energized over climate change, some Democrats don’t think it’s smart to shy away from a bold proposal being touted by one of the party’s fastest-rising stars, Ocasio-Cortez.
“There’s some difference of opinion about whether it goes far enough or too far, whether it was rolled out in the best way,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the Green New Deal.
“I will give credit to the sponsors, especially my friend Ed Markey. We need to, as a nation, take this issue seriously and waste no time in doing it,” Durbin added.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), an outspoken liberal who is mulling a presidential bid in 2020, praised the Green New Deal as a strong proposal.
“We have a whopping big problem. Second, we need to boldly address it. Investing those funds will create millions of jobs. We need to make sure the benefits of clean energy and jobs go to the communities that have often been bypassed,” said Merkley, who is a co-sponsor.
But a Democratic senator who faces a competitive reelection race in 2020 dinged it for leaving too much to the imagination.
“There are a lot of specifics that are missing,” the lawmaker said.
The Republican move to force a vote on Democratic legislation is similar to when the GOP went on offense to vote on Obama’s budgets in 2012 and 2015. Democrats accused Republicans of playing politics, and the measures were rejected 98-1 and 99-0, respectively.
In prior elections, climate change legislation was seen as a significant liability for Democrats in tough races.
Centrist Democrats such as former Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) urged Obama at the end of 2009 to stop talking about cap-and-trade legislation, fearing it would boomerang on Democrats politically.
Democrats lost control of the House in 2010 after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched a frenzied and ultimately successful effort to pass a comprehensive climate change bill in 2009.
Senate Democrats, however, never took up cap-and-trade after then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said it faced too much Republican opposition. Democrats subsequently kept control of the Senate in Obama’s first midterm election.
Beyond the Green New Deal, Democrats are undecided about whether they should put together a package of proposals to address climate change — as they did for infrastructure issues in the 115th Congress with their “Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure.”
Some Senate Democrats say the party should try to build bipartisan support for climate change legislation expected to pass the House later this year. Others say there’s little hope of getting votes on substantive proposals while Republicans control the Senate.
“There’s all sorts of different opinions about the Green New Deal, whether we do our own, whether people tout what they’ve been doing,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Schumer has tried to bridge the divisions by getting all 47 members of his caucus to support a nonbinding resolution stating that climate change is real and caused predominantly by human activity and should be addressed by immediate action from Congress and the administration.
A Democratic aide said the resolution will let Democrats go on the offensive by pressuring Republicans to take public positions on whether climate change is real and manmade.
“We’re going on offense to demand that they admit climate change is real, it’s manmade, it’s caused by humans and you have to act. They’ve been silent. We’re flipping the script,” the aide said. “Climate change is something that two-thirds of the country now believes is a serious threat.”
“We’re trying to show the clear divide, that we’re the ones that wants to address it and the Republicans are the ones standing in the way,” the source added.
Recent polls show that public attitudes are shifting on climate change — as they have on gun control, another issue that was seen in the past as a weakness for Democratic candidates.
A survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities in December showed that the proportion of Americans alarmed by climate change has doubled over the past five years. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from December showed that two-thirds of respondents say action is needed to address climate change.
Schumer took to the Senate floor Wednesday to give GOP colleagues a taste of what to expect.
“I heard Leader McConnell knocking the Green New Deal, I would ask the leader — and we’re going to keep asking him, and every Republican in this chamber — what they would do about climate change,” Schumer asked.
He called McConnell’s plan to force a vote on the Green New Deal “a diversion” and “a sham.”
“Not a single bill has been brought to the floor to deal with climate change in the five years Leader McConnell has been majority leader. What is your plan, Leader McConnell?” he said.
Regardless, Senate Democrats still have to wrestle over what substantive climate change proposals to push in 2019 and 2020.
Schumer sent a letter to President Trump in December insisting that any future infrastructure package include funding to transition to a clean-energy economy. He proposed modernizing the electric grid and investing in renewable energy, sewer and water infrastructure.
Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) plan to introduce a carbon tax or carbon fee proposal that would assess a fee on fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases. Durbin said there could also be support for legislation that would authorize the Treasury Department to issue bonds to support investments to combat the impact of climate change.
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wants to end tax breaks for what he calls “dirty energy.”
“I want to throw 40 tax breaks on energy, which are basically dirty energy tax relics, in the garbage can and substitute three: one for clean energy, one for clean transportation fuel and one for energy efficiency,” he said.
Merkley, meanwhile, is pushing legislation to restore the tax credit for purchasing electric cars and to set up a fund to allow municipal metro systems to buy electric buses.