Centrist Dems Wary of Big Climate Push

As the progressive wing pushes for dramatic action, a growing number of House Democrats say they're worried about economic pain for American households.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joined by Reps. Eric Swalwell, Joyce Beatty, and Kathy Castor, speaks to media on Nov. 28.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Feb. 3, 2019, 8 p.m.

Rep. Kathy Castor, the veteran Democrat tapped to lead the nascent climate select committee, says she hasn’t heard any dissent from Democrats about pushing major environmental legislation. But she may soon.

A handful of Democrats, drawn mostly from the growing ranks of the Blue Dog Coalition, are demanding pocketbook economic analysis on proposals to transition the U.S. energy portfolio to 100 percent renewables. And some are even questioning the need for legislative action to pare down emissions, instead insisting on forest management and coastal-resiliency proposals.

Those concerns are surfacing at a critical time in the public-policy debate on climate change. The House Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources Committees are conducting hearings Wednesday on climate-related damages and the need for action.

“I’m in agreement on a lot of these issues but I also have to look at the American people and say, ‘Is this real or not real? And if it is real, here’s the amount it’s going to cost us and here’s why.’ And I think there’s a lot of us that believe that within the caucus,” Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a Blue Dog who represents a massive, Republican-leaning Arizona district, told National Journal.

“Where are you going to take this from the budget, or are you going to increase taxes?” he added. “Just let people know, and then we can have a rational discussion. But at this point in time I haven’t heard anything from those that are more aggressive on how this will be paid for.”

The 2018 midterm election sent a squadron of firebrand, environmentally-hawkish Democrats, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to Capitol Hill this Congress. Those champions of a—currently amorphous—Green New Deal have pushed emissions reductions to the forefront of public policy.

O’Halleran may soon have a chance to parse a comprehensive proposal. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, another climate hawk, are expected to unveil a formal Green New Deal in the coming days. The American Action Forum, a center-right organization, recently estimated that a renewable overhaul would cost at least $5.7 trillion.

Proponents of big action emphasize that climate change is already hitting American bank accounts through rising insurance and air-conditioning bills, among other costs.

“Over the past decades, the dirty-fuels folks have created this narrative that climate is too expensive for us to tackle, that the average working person is going to pay a lot more. But see, they’re already paying an enormous amount,” Castor, who also sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said.

The concerns from fiscally conscious Blue Dogs showcase disparate views among House Democrats. That lack of unification around specific action could make the road ahead rocky for supporters of dramatic climate-change action.

“For some of my colleagues, it’s just about doing all this renewable-energy stuff. That’s too late,” Rep. Kurt Schrader, another Blue Dog cochair, said. “I think you need to do other things. Be more proactive early on. Forest policy for instance—I’d like to see that be part of the discussion. How do we deal with these horrible fires out there? How do you deal with these natural disasters proactively?”

That priority echoes Republican attitudes on climate policy. Many Republicans are pushing initiatives to defang environmental litigation on forest-management projects. The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity are among groups that regularly sue to halt federal thinning projects.

Critics say the litigation prevents the clearing of dry or dead vegetation, known as hazardous fuels, and that in turn exacerbates wildfires. The November Camp Fire in Northern California claimed some 85 lives, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.

Still, the Blue Dogs said their members are largely behind the need for climate action, arguing that the science has been borne out.

In a November report, the Trump administration pointed to climate change as a contributor to wildfires and other intensified natural disasters, also arguing that temperatures could, in the most drastic scenario, increase 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, compared to the 1986–2015 period.

“Most everyone that is on the Democratic side, no matter what part of the spectrum you come from, believes climate change is pretty darn real,” Schrader said.

But the six-term Oregon lawmaker stopped short of calling for big legislation to slash emissions.

“I don’t think that’s necessary. The president apparently in recent years has seen fit to decide on those,” he said. “We could push a little bit. I’d be interested in what the car manufacturers and petrochemical folks have to say on some of this stuff, what it means to jobs.”

Carbon-dioxide emissions rose in 2018 amid a booming economy, but will likely drop in the coming two years, according to the Energy Department.

Ten freshmen joined the Blue Dogs this Congress, and the full ranks of the coalition now total 27. The November election delivered House Democrats 235 seats, meaning the Blue Dogs could play spoiler to Democratic-led legislation. Only a few Republicans, if any, would likely sign on board large-scale climate-change legislation, so House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have to marshal close to the 218-vote majority threshold.

O’Halleran, who said he’s studied the climate effects on the Colorado River both in the Arizona legislature and as a volunteer, insists that the Blue Dogs aren’t posturing for an insurgency, akin to the Freedom Caucus.

“We aren’t looking to stop things. We’re looking to make sure issues are addressed in an appropriate way,” he said. “One of the underlying parts of the Blue Dogs is in keeping with the ability to pay for what we’re doing.”

But Blue Dogs are quick to point out that purple and red districts largely account for the 42-seat Democratic pickup in November. Nine of the 10 additions to the coalition flipped Republican seats, including arguably the biggest upset of election night. In Oklahoma’s 5th District, Kendra Horn edged out Steve Russell, who sailed to victory the previous two elections.

Environmental groups are wary of the coalition. The League of Conservation Voters gives O’Halleran a 91 percent rating for 2017, his first year in office, but dinged him on several recent votes, including support for a 2018 resolution to condemn a carbon tax. The group hasn’t put out its 2018 ratings. Schrader, meanwhile, has only a 71 percent rating.

“God bless the progressives. I have nothing against them,” Schrader said. “That’s the changing dynamic within some of the cities. [It’s] not changing that way out in the country.”

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