The Senate Spins as Green New Deal Vote Approaches

Lawmakers are set to vote next week, and both sides of the aisle are already trying to claim victory.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
March 17, 2019, 8 p.m.

A bipartisan consensus on climate change is taking root among Senate lawmakers—just not one that’s going to result in policy change.

Leaders on both sides of the political aisle are already claiming victory ahead of a high-profile vote on the controversial Green New Deal resolution.

GOP senators say the resolution’s renewable-energy mandate and social reform will inflict severe damage on the American economy. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set up a vote after the Senate recess next week.

Democrats counter that the ramped-up political debate serves them, often pointing to recent polls that suggest climate change is rapidly rising among voter priorities. They say Senate Republicans miscalculated when they decided to launch a campaign against the Green New Deal by providing a forum to discuss climate change.

“I think their little strategy blew up in their face. And I can’t wait for this to continue,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a leading climate hawk in the chamber. Whitehouse hasn’t signed onto the resolution, but he takes to the floor weekly to exhort climate action.

Democrats, along with their staunchest climate supporters off Capitol Hill, are downplaying the vote as an underhanded power play by McConnell.

“We’re not making a huge national push,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement, which played a critical role in publicizing the resolution. “This is nothing more than a show vote and a sham. McConnell has no intention of taking serious action on climate change.”

Many Democrats are already signaling they’ll vote “present” on the resolution, a maneuver they deployed last Congress on a Medicare-for-all vote. That’s OK with backers of action on climate change.

“I don’t think the Democrats in the Senate are the problem,” said Sarah Saylor, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice. “We’re not using any one particular resolution or one particular idea as a litmus test. I don’t want to divide folks that in general agree that we need to take action on climate change.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are feverishly highlighting the specific proposals in the resolution. Speaking on the Senate floor last week, McConnell called the Green New Deal “garden-variety 20th-century socialism.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, the GOP conference vice chair, is now organizing weekly blocks of floor time to give Republican colleagues opportunities to criticize the proposal. And Republicans readily repeat those points of attack in hallway interviews.

“The element of the Green New Deal that is not getting enough attention from my perspective is a command-economy approach to the U.S. economy that is essentially socialism dressed up as environmentalism,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, who represents fossil-fuel-rich Alaska. “It’s time for people who believe in the power and the reality that the democratic capitalist system is what made our country great to debate it.”

The resolution says the federal government has a “duty” to create net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions in 10 years through a clean-energy overhaul, a nod to renewable energy and rebuke to nuclear. And the proposal, which has 11 Democratic sponsors in the Senate, including many presidential candidates, and 90 sponsors in the House, calls for job guarantees and “high-quality health care” for all Americans.

Republicans argue the resolution is part of a patchwork of Democratic proposals that showcase a severe shift to the left.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are collaborating to push legislation to boost public-private sector partnerships on carbon capture and utilization and advanced nuclear innovation. But the vast majority of Republicans are opposed to additional emission-reduction policies, often pointing to decreased U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions over recent decades.

“We should maybe take this bill and have them pass it in China or India,” Ernst said. “I would recommend to Senator [Brian] Schatz, and some of these others, to be advocating in some of these other countries. They are the ones that are really detrimental overall to global climate change.”

Schatz is another aggressive proponent of climate change but also, along with Whitehouse, not a sponsor of the Green New Deal.

U.S. power-sector emissions rose by nearly 2 percent in 2018, and overall emissions, including those linked to transportation fuel, spiked 3.4 percent, according to a Rhodium Group report. Still, U.S. emissions have declined roughly 13 percent since 2005, due in large part to coal retirements, according to most analysis.

Gross Chinese and Indian emissions more than double U.S. emissions. According to analysis by the Global Carbon Project, Chinese emissions have slowed in recent years while Indian emissions continue to climb steadily.

The partisan discord over the Green New Deal isn’t restricted to the Senate. The House Democratic victory at the polls in November has elevated the climate-change debate politically to levels unseen since Democrats passed cap-and-trade legislation a decade ago.

So far this Congress, the lower chamber has held more than a dozen hearings on climate change. But the outlook for bipartisan compromise on emissions reductions is equally bleak.

Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, the chair of the House select committee on climate, plans to kick-start activity on the panel next week with a hearing. And she’s now warning Republicans, namely ranking member Garret Graves of Louisiana, that the panel won’t settle for adaptation policies like coastal barriers.

“Don’t be left behind. Come with us and be a helpful partner,” she said after a meeting earlier this month with Graves. “It’s so nice to be in the majority because we can set the agenda, and we intend to.”

That overture, however, isn’t going over well.

“Y’all can try and sit here and push some of the Green New Deal stuff, which I am more than happy to talk about all day long. Or we can actually sit around and talk about some of the things where we actually have some policy agreement,” Graves said. “If they want to make this a partisan shit-show … that’s an option.”

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