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Cracks on Display as Democrats Plan for Climate Action

Tension has caught the attention of House Republicans, who are already using it to paint the Democrats as a party of disunity

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., spent time during freshman orientation at Nancy Pelosi’s office. What was she doing? Protesting. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., spent time during freshman orientation at Nancy Pelosi’s office. What was she doing? Protesting. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats agree they want to act on climate change, but even before they take charge of the House, they are signs of cracks in their coalition over how to advance the cause.

On Tuesday, while in Washington for new member orientations, the most prominent of newly-elected Democrats, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, joined climate demonstrators at the office of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to demand more aggressive action on greenhouse gases.

Pelosi said she would reprise a select committee on climate change that Republicans dissolved in 2011 when they took over House leadership. But Ocasio-Cortez and other young progressive Democrats want the committee to have more powers than it did previously, including the ability to write legislation to move the country to 100 percent renewable electricity generation within a decade.

Pelosi’s idea of reviving the panel has not been well received by others in the party, including by New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., who is in line to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Clean Air Act issues.

“I think that it is unnecessary and my fear is that it will just delay the very aggressive action that we intend to take,” Pallone told reporters on Thursday. “I think that we can have a very aggressive agenda that we can get caucus consensus on and that we can get some Republicans on.”

The tension displayed within the first week after the midterms has caught the attention of House Republicans, who are already using it to suggest that Democrats are the party of disunity, as the GOP prepares its strategy to retake House leadership in 2020.

“If you look at what we accomplished in the last Congress and you look at how the Democrats have started this one — protesting each other in their offices — I think that men and women all across the political spectrum and all across the country are going to take a look at that and say that we need the kind of positive growth we saw in the last Congress … not the kind of chaos we’ve already seen over there,” Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney said on Wednesday after being picked to become chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.

Democrats have been frustrated for the last two years as they have been unable to stop the Trump administration and congressional Republicans from dismantling many environmental protections, including Obama administration rules to cut carbon and methane emissions and other regulations to protect clean air, water and ecosystems, while boosting fossil fuel production on public lands.

Meanwhile, scientists’ warnings about the dangers of a warming climate due to human activity have become more grim.

Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who is co-chairman of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, said Thursday he has not had time to look into Pelosi’s idea of a select committee, and has instead been focusing on what his own climate group, which lost nearly half of its Republican members in the midterm elections and through retirements, will look like in the new Congress.

‘Range of ideas’

“The important thing to remember is that there is finally a majority that understands the urgency of combating climate change,” he said in a hallway interview with reporters. “There are a range of ideas and proposals and we’ll have the opportunity to hash them out.”

Deutch says he plans to continue his push for a bipartisan approach and is looking to bring Republicans and Democrats who can agree into the Climate Solutions Caucus in the 116th Congress.

“We want to come up with something that can move past the discussion phase and can lead to some type of proposals that have a chance of moving in the House and hopefully the Senate,” he said.

A United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in October warned that unless drastic action is taken quickly, global average temperatures could rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) between 2030 and 2052, a level that scientists fear could be catastrophic for environment, humans and wildlife.

That report has become the most recent rallying cry for progressives and environmental activists in their quest for bolder action.

“What I hope that we could communicate is that this is not about a person, this is not about a personality,” Ocasio-Cortez said during the Tuesday protest at Pelosi’s office. “Should Leader Pelosi become next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”

Ocasio-Cortez is hoping to raise support for the creation of a “Select Committee For a Green New Deal,” which, according to her campaign proposal, would have the authority to develop a detailed plan for “the transition of the United States economy to become carbon neutral and to significantly draw down and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality.”

As Pallone remained dismissive of the idea of the creation of another panel, he said the Energy and Commerce Committee as well as the Natural Resources and Science committees, which share jurisdiction over environmental issues, should take charge and will soon start crafting legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency and build resilience against severe storms and other climate-related disasters.

“I don’t want to prejudge what we are going to do other than to say that we intend to be very aggressive about it and the progressives will be very happy,” Pallone said.

Two other lawmakers who belong to another group, the Safe Climate Caucus, echoed the idea that the committees of jurisdictions should take the lead in climate issues, although they did not directly oppose Pelosi’s idea.

“In light of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris, roll back federal standards that limit greenhouse gas pollution, and suppress climate science within federal agencies, it is imperative that Congress have the strongest voice possible to prepare the way forward with evidence,” Democratic Reps. Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Alan Lowenthal, co-chairmen of the caucus, wrote in a letter to Pelosi on Wednesday. “We believe that the committees of jurisdiction and future Chairs are ready and able to tackle this challenge. However, should you decide to create a select committee on climate change in the 116th Congress, we stand ready to work with you.”

Watch: Pelosi Talks Midterm ‘Wave,’ Says She Has Votes for Speakership

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