Some of the nation’s newly minted progressives are pushing Democratic leaders to embrace a bold new climate change agenda that would revolutionize the energy sector and end the U.S.'s reliance on fossil fuels. But it’s also revealing a split in the party and has Republicans sensing an opening for them to go on the offense.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is the loudest voice emerging at the Capitol on climate policy. She’s calling for a “Green New Deal” that would put the nation on the path to a 100 percent renewable energy economy, build a national “smart” energy grid, and boost domestic manufacturing and exporting of emerging “green” technologies. Within days after the midterms, 10 House Democrats had already signed on to the effort, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who endorsed it this week.
“It’s about making sure that we can get as progressive and aggressive of legislation as a party on climate change as quickly as possible,” Ocasio-Cortez told VICE News last week.
Republicans still control the White House and the Senate, which means passing any climate-related legislation will be difficult, if not impossible. But Ocasio-Cortez argues her goal goes beyond the new session of Congress. She says the party has to lay the groundwork now so they can tackle it right away if they win back control of the Senate and the White House in 2020.
“It’s not even about passing the Senate,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It’s that we need to have this legislation drafted by 2020. We can’t wait until 2020 to start doing this work. We need to hit the ground running if we capture [the Senate and the White House].”
Pelosi has resisted calls for the Green New Deal, and instead aims to reinstate a House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that Republicans scrapped once they took over the gavels eight years ago. But now she’s being pulled by the new vocal progressives in her party, even though many of the Dems' gains on Election Day were in Republican areas where new members could be endangered if they’re forced to vote on a sweeping climate proposal that’s guaranteed to die in the Senate.
"We can’t wait until 2020 to start doing this work."
The progressive’s demand for a radical rethinking of U.S. energy policy is also complicated by the defeat of an array of climate focused ballot initiatives on Election Day in a couple battleground states, including in Colorado and Arizona (and even in progressive Washington State). Democrats lost seats in 2010 after passing a cap and trade bill — that basically levies a tax on companies for their carbon use — but the politics around climate change have evolved since then, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.
“Cap and trade is a different issue, because that’s a tax issue,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told reporters at the Capitol last week, before adding that his state’s three newly elected Democrats are prepared to act on the issue even though they just captured conservative districts. “But climate change alone? You’re not going to lose seats in Virginia over climate change.”
Select committee or Green New Deal?
Some veteran Democrats who fear ceding power on the issue are resisting Pelosi’s call for a new special climate committee, because they don’t want their committees to cede control over the issue that falls under their jurisdiction. But Connolly is behind the idea.
“I think actually it enhances everything, because it elevates the issue and allows the legislating committee to then follow up and legislate. So I think they’re complimentary,” Connolly said.
It’s a different story on the other side of the aisle. Most Republicans are prepared to go to the mat for the fossil fuel industry. In the past two years, President Trump pulled America out of the Paris climate accord and Republicans on Capitol Hill aggressively rolled back any regulation they could. So we'll see whether Democrats go big and bold on climate policy, as Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are advocating, or whether they embrace a more incremental approach.
“I think it’s very important that we elevate climate change in the next Congress. The Republicans completely stymied us.”
“I think it’s very important that we elevate climate change in the next Congress. The Republicans completely stymied us,” Kathy Castor (D-FL), who is on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told reporters at the Capitol.
Castor hasn’t made up her mind yet on the mechanics of how her party tackles the looming climate crisis, but she says that’s less important than coming together and making the issue a top priority.
“So whatever, if it’s a select committee, if it’s happening in the jurisdiction of the committee, it’s got to be elevated. We’ve got to decarbonize the atmosphere. We’ve got to do more on renewables. We’ve got to address these extreme weather events,” Castor said. “People back home are crying out for action, and they see the GOP Congress just not meeting the challenge of the changing climate.”
But Republicans still see energy policy as a winning issue for them, and they view talk of a Green New Deal as a gift because they can use it to paint the Democratic Party as extreme in their attempt to recapture some of the seats they just lost.
“They’ve got a really radical agenda.”
“They’ve got a really radical agenda,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) told reporters at the Capitol after she was unanimously elected chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, making her the third-most-powerful Republican in the House. “It’s going to be interesting to watch, but I have no doubt that the American people are going to look at what we were able to produce in the majority and compare that to what the Democrats are now saying they’re going to do and trying to do, and the choice will be very clear.”
Cheney has advocated for abolishing the EPA, and she’s now charged with helping her party craft its message.
“We need to get on offense. and especially because we’re in the minority now, we've got to be in a position where we're making sure that we’re out there every day fighting, and I think we’ve got to be sure we’re winning the news cycle,” Cheney said. “We need to make sure we have a more aggressive approach, especially because we're in the minority."
Cover: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, arrives for orientation for new members of Congress, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.