Democrats are rallying to turn the “Green New Deal” into a centerpiece of their Capitol Hill agenda and the party’s 2020 platform — as soon as they decide what exactly it is.
The term has become a potent brand name for a slate of ideas for transforming the economy and fighting climate change, championed by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and embraced, at least cautiously, by potential presidential nominees including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Beto O’Rourke.
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But not all Democrats have signed onto the full agenda that Ocasio-Cortez and her activist allies have rolled into their Green New Deal platforms — which encompasses proposals such as a complete switch to clean energy by 2030, big tax increases on the wealthy, retrofits of every building in the U.S. and a federal guarantee of a well-paying job to everyone who wants one. And some leading Democrats on the Hill already are criticizing some of those planks as unrealistically ambitious and politically polarizing.
That means one of the Democrats’ most crucial debates of 2019 will be defining what their Green New Deal entails. Dozens of suggestions are already emerging, including smaller-bore, middle-of-the-road ideas such as cleaning up polluted sites or offering new tax breaks for electric cars.
Liberal activists contend that Democrats need bold ideas — both to tackle the urgency of the climate crisis and to drum up the voter excitement to oust President Donald Trump.
“I think it is a fantastic idea and I think it is the secret, or one of the secrets, to winning 2020,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked with progressives like Ocasio-Cortez, said of the Green New Deal. “It combines an issue that Democrats are way ahead on — the environment — and an issue they need to desperately get ahead on — the economy.”
But Republicans says the leftward push on climate change and the economy benefits them by moving Democrats away from centrist policies.
“There are certainly places in America, like where I come from, where those ideas further isolate Democrats from political success,” said North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer.
Progressives and environmental groups are working to line up a suite a bills that could serve as an environmental policy road map for Democrats, breaking the agenda into pieces that they see defining the Green New Deal over time.
“I don’t even think it’s possible to reach the full scale of what we’re talking about with one piece of legislation,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder of Sunrise Movement, which organized protests at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to push for aggressive green policies. “It’s not going to be necessarily one bill or one piece of legislation or one level of government that makes this possible.”
Environmental organizations like Sunrise, 350.org and Data for Progress are working to bring “standard setting marker bills” to the floor and to draw out more details from the potential Democratic presidential candidates, said Julian NoiseCat, policy analyst at 350.org, which is already discussing legislation with lawmakers.
“The term Green New Deal entered into the public discourse before a lot of the white papers, and think pieces of how you would achieve that were really out in the mainstream,” NoiseCat said. “The same could be said of the original New Deal, of Medicare for All. The same was obviously true of [President Donald] Trump’s border wall.”
Many of the ideas that could comprise an eventual Green New Deal have been circulating for years, and while there’s little chance that the Republican Senate or Trump will take up any environmental measures, the groups are hoping the ideas will germinate over the next two years and provide some ready-made policies Democrats can act on if they win White House in 2020.
Liberal research group Data for Progress has identified 31 bills introduced last Congress that could be part of the Green New Deal, including Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas)’s bill, H.R. 2830, to eliminate methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure, as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)’s measure, H.R. 3671, to electrify transportation and shift to renewable sources by 2035, end subsidies and exports of fossil fuels and permanently extend renewable energy incentives.
And it could even include Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) plan, S. 822 (115), to expand grants for cleaning up and reusing brownfield sites, as well as various carbon pricing proposals. State-level policies in Washington state, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Maine may also be considered.
Data for Progress expects lawmakers to float bills with national targets for generating electricity from renewable sources, infrastructure packages that include climate change provisions and new tax credits for electric vehicles and renewable energy. Some measures might hitch a ride on spending bills or must-pass items, while others will be seen as “marquee bills” that try to advance the Green New Deal’s most ambitious elements, like job guarantees or nationwide building upgrades.
The most prominent bill from last Congress came from Green New Deal supporters Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sanders, which called for getting 100 percent of U.S. electricity from renewable sources by 2050. All three are considering a presidential runs.
But Sunrise’s Prakash said the statements from the likely presidential candidates have “been real fuzzy,” mostly consisting of support for the general concept or idea of a Green New Deal. Her group will be meeting with staff for Merkley, Booker, Sanders and Warren to draw them out on what Prakash sees as the three core principles: ending emissions-generating energy by 2030, guaranteeing good-paying jobs for everyone and providing economic and racial justice for all.
The green activists are hoping their policies will play a prominent role in the 2020 contest, when they want Democrats to rally around the progressive cause.
“Policy details are going to matter and be very important,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress. “But the actual meta politics question is how do we make sure, in a roughly two-year period, … Democrats create an agenda? How do we make sure that the Green New Deal and the environment take up a substantial share of that floor time when we have a bunch of competing interests?”
The newly formed think tank New Consensus will be tasked with doing some of that legislative legwork. Founded by Abdul El-Sayed, the progressive activist and physician who last year lost the Michigan Democratic primary to now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the group plans to meet with various constituencies to discuss elements of the Green New Deal and help shape it into a platform.
Historians say there are some parallels between what activists are doing with the Green New Deal and how President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was formed. FDR merely mentioned giving Americans a “new deal” on the campaign trail and came into office working on “mostly good intentions and to be active … without much in the way of specifics,” Robert McElvaine, a history professor at Millsaps College and Great Depression expert, said in an email.
Many of the policies that became the New Deal were bouncing around Democratic circles for decades, said David M. Kennedy, a history professor emeritus at Stanford University. Correspondence between FDR and lawmakers in the 1920s showed them planting the seedlings that eventually grew into Social Security, unemployment insurance, farm relief and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“The level of concept, of high-altitude level definition of what the landscape looks like, the Green New Deal has some generic resemblance to the way Democrats — and believe it or not there were some progressive Republicans — were thinking,” Kennedy said.
The green groups say they are wary of bills that would dilute the aggressive agenda at the center of the Green New Deal — a real possibility given the somewhat skeptical reception some top House Democrats have given it. Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who is planning to make climate change the first item on his agenda, said in a radio interview on Tuesday that the goal to “decarbonize” the U.S. economy by 2030 is unrealistic.
“Some of the countries that have been a lot more progressive on this, like in Western Europe for example, they’re moving towards carbon-free or carbon-neutral, but it’s going to take more than 10 years,” he told WNYC. “This is something that we should take a look at, but some of it may not be technologically or politically feasible.”
That type of lukewarm support makes Green New Deal advocates nervous.
“There’s a million and one ways that this could get watered down,” Prakash said. “I could totally see a lot of Democrats not pushing for the scale of ambition that we need. The fossil fuel industry hasn’t even gotten all of its firepower behind fighting a Green New Deal.”
One of Congress’ most conservative Democrats, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota, expressed even more skepticism about the push to advance a national strategy to fight climate change. The issue does not appear on a list of priorities for House Agriculture Democrats this year, according to a committee document obtained by POLITICO.
“What is our goal? Planting all those trees? I’m actually cutting down the forest,” Peterson told reporters recently, shortly after he began logging his own land to spur regrowth.
Still, some industry voices are already seeking to claim to a slice of a Green New Deal. Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry group, noted in a press release this week that switching from coal to natural gas in power generation has driven carbon emissions 14 percent lower since 2005, citing figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“When it comes to climate change, do we care about actual results, or do we just care about virtue signaling?” Kathleen Sgamma, the organization’s president, said in a statement that slammed Green New Deal proponents for criticizing natural gas.
Catherine Boudreau contributed to this report.