Bipartisan climate caucus at risk of losing large percentage of Republican members

More than half of the House climate group's GOP members are retiring or facing strong competition.

Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) currently are members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) currently are members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than half of the Republican members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus are either retiring or facing strong competition in their reelection bids. When the new Congress meets in January, the group’s membership numbers could decline noticeably from its current count of 86.

Several Republicans, who are not shoo-ins to win reelection, have joined the caucus over the past year. They represent districts where membership in a congressional group focused on climate change could help overcome the negative perception many of their constituents hold of President Donald Trump’s environmental policies.

At least 14 of the 43 Republican members of the caucus are in tight races with Democrats. Seven Republican members of the caucus are retiring. One Republican caucus member — Rep. Mark Sanford (SC) — lost the Republican primary in his district to a Trump-backed candidate. After the midterm elections, it’s possible that 22 of the 43 Republican members of the caucus will no longer be serving in Congress.

Membership on the Climate Solutions Caucus would probably be larger if it did not follow a policy of requiring equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Despite a strong growth spurt over the past year, many Democrats are still waiting to join the caucus, according to Flannery Winchester, communications coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Right now, 43 of the 236 Republicans in the House are members of the caucus.


The long list of Democratic members waiting to join the caucus “really speaks volumes,” Winchester said. Even with the rapid growth of the caucus over this last two years, many other lawmakers want to join the group, Winchester said Tuesday in an email to ThinkProgress.

“Climate change has become a safe, smart topic for politicians to discuss across the spectrum,” said Winchester, “and lots of members of Congress are interested in joining the conversation.”

The Climate Solutions Caucus was formed after a volunteer with the advocacy group Citizens’ Climate Lobby approached Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) about establishing a bipartisan group to develop climate solutions. Deutch eventually teamed up with Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) to co-found the caucus. Both members represent south Florida, one of the regions scientists predict will be hit the hardest by climate change.

Although he’s not the most vulnerable Republican member of the caucus, Curbelo will not be coasting to an easy victory. Some analysts are labeling Curbelo’s reelection chances as a toss-up, even though Democrats have yet to pick the candidate who will be on the ballot against Curbelo. The Democratic primary for Curbelo’s 26th congressional district of Florida will be held August 28.


Curbelo, who is seeking a third term, represents the most Democratic-leaning district held by a Republican running for reelection this cycle. Hillary Clinton won Curbelo’s district by double-digits in the 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in June 2017, is one of the most vulnerable Republican candidates in the country. She represents a Democratic-leaning district of Northern Virginia where constituents have grown concerned with Comstock’s votes, which clearly show she’s on President Donald Trump’s side.

Even as a member of the caucus, Comstock has voted in favor bills passed by the Republican-led house that took aim at federal climate initiatives. She voted for a bill that prohibits the government’s use of the social cost of carbon for calculating the benefits of climate regulation, a bill that prevents Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of methane emissions on public lands, and another bill that prevents the EPA from using certain air pollution public health data in scientific studies.

Comstock was also one of many Republican members of the caucus who voted in favor of a resolution that denounced the imposition of a carbon tax. The resolution, sponsored by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), stated that a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide — the most prevalent greenhouse gas that causes climate change — “would be detrimental to American families and businesses, and is not in the best interest of the United States.”

The four Republican caucus members who voted against the anti-carbon tax resolution are either retiring or facing tough reelection bids in districts where voters are generally in favor of climate action. Curbelo, along with Reps. Mia Love (R-UT), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), were the only Republicans on the caucus to vote against the resolution. Ros-Lehtinen is retiring from Congress, but Curbelo, Love, and Fitzpatrick are fighting to stay in Congress.


The other Republican caucus members who are retiring from the House are Reps. Ryan Costello (PA), Dave Reichert (WA), Darrell Issa (CA), Ed Royce (CA), Dave Trott (MI), and Lynn Jenkins (KS).

On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Collins (NY), a Republican member of the caucus, was indicted on charges of insider trading. In a statement released Wednesday, Collins denied any wrongdoing.

Collins joined the caucus in September 2017. “As an Eagle Scout, I believe in preserving our national parks and recreational sites for future generations,” Collins said in a statement upon joining the caucus. “I look forward to discussing solutions that truly improve our environment, while balancing the needs of our economic sector.”

Only two Democratic members of the caucus — Reps. Rick Nolan (MN) and Elizabeth Esty (CT) — are not seeking reelection in November. Nolan’s northeastern Minnesota congressional seat is viewed as vulnerable to a Republican takeover.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), the only Democratic member of the caucus to vote in favor of the anti-carbon tax resolution, is one of the few Democrats on the caucus who is in a tough fight for reelection.

The Climate Solutions Caucus was created to build bipartisan support for climate legislation. Its founders believed that getting both Democrats and Republicans to come together on climate legislation that would reduce carbon emissions and prove “economically viable” is the only way legislation would get passed. For that reason, the caucus requires an equal number of Democratic and Republican members. New members must join in pairs — one Democrat and one Republican.

If several Republican members of the caucus were to lose their reelection bids this November, creating a group weighted heavily toward the Democrats, the caucus would not force Democrats to leave the group to create an equilibrium.

Instead, if there’s a disparity on the caucus after the elections, the co-chairs will most likely keep current members on the caucus, Winchester said. But the co-chairs would not bring any new Democrats on-board until enough Republicans have joined to bring the caucus into balance again, or vice versa if more Democratic members of the caucus lose their reelection bids than Republicans. Once the caucus is brought back into balance, new members will once again start joining in bipartisan pairs, she said.

Seeking protection from anti-Trump anger

Critics of the Climate Solutions Caucus look at the increase in the number of Republicans on the caucus during an election year as an attempt to protect them from constituent anger since President Trump took office. Over the past year, the Climate Solutions Caucus has seen dramatic growth. The caucus stood at 40 members last year at this time. The caucus now has 86 members.

The same critics also point to a lack of accomplishments. Its only major feat occurred just over a year ago — on July 13, 2017 — when 46 House Republicans, including almost all of the GOP members of the caucus, joined Democrats to defeat a bill amendment that would have prevented the Department of Defense from analyzing and addressing climate change.

The amendment would have blocked a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that requires a study into the 20-year impacts of climate change on the military. The amendment also would have removed language from the NDAA that recognizes climate change as a “direct threat” to the national security of the United States.

Enough Republican members of the caucus stood up against their GOP colleagues to help defeat the amendment. Since that day, the accomplishments cited by the caucus have included a bill calling for climate prize competition and a separate bill calling for the creation of a climate commission.

In February, two members of the caucus, Reps. John Faso (R-NY) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL), introduced a bill that would direct the secretary of Energy to establish a program called Climate Solutions Challenges. It would organize price competitions on carbon capture, energy efficiency, energy storage, climate resiliency, and data analytics to better understand climate. The bill was referred to a subcommittee of the House Science Committee for consideration in May.

Two years ago, Faso introduced another bill, the Climate Solutions Commission Act, which would create a bipartisan commission to review “economically viable” public and private actions or policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Co-introduced by Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), the bill is stalled in the environment subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Caucus supporters also point out that some Republicans members spoke out against President Trump’s offshore drilling plan. Another success cited by supporters is when Democratic members of the caucus introduced a carbon pricing bill called the America Winds Act.

And yet, the anti-climate votes delivered by Republican members of the caucus far outnumber the group’s successes.

One of the newest members of the caucus, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who sits on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said at a 2014 House hearing that global warming is a “natural phenomenon” that happens in between ice ages. Last fall, after Hurricane Irma struck his district, Posey’s spokesperson told the press that it was “insensitive” to be discussing the connection between climate change and the hurricane.

Two years ago, Posey authored an amendment to a bill forbidding the Securities and Exchange Commission from enacting regulations regarding disclosure of climate change risks. The amendment passed the Republican-led House.

Another new Republican member, Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, is retiring from Congress. In 2010, Jenkins bragged on Twitter about co-sponsoring a resolution overturning an EPA rule that human-caused greenhouse gases are a danger to public health. In 2015, Jenkins voted for a bill to block implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a proposal to reduce the level of carbon emissions from existing power plants.

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), who recently joined the group, has cosponsored several pro-coal, anti-climate bills. Guthrie, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote an opinion piece in 2013 in which he complained about EPA policies during the Obama administration that would harm his state’s coal industry.

Bills have already been introduced in Congress that could produce positive results for the climate. One of them has not received strong support from the caucus.

The Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act (OFF Act), authored by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), would place a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects and would seek to move the nation’s electricity and most transportation systems to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The bill also would provide for a just transition for environmental justice communities and those working in the fossil fuel industry.

“Congressional caucuses are only as useful as the legislation they endorse and work to enact,” Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

The OFF Act “is the most aggressive, comprehensive climate legislation ever introduced,” Hauter said. “Those members of the Climate Solutions Caucus that have co-sponsored the OFF Act are walking the walk and talking the talk. Those that haven’t are simply grandstanding,” she said.

The OFF Act has 36 co-sponsors. But only six of the 86 members of the Climate Solutions Caucus — Reps. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Schakowski (D-IL), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and Adam Engel (D-NY) — are co-sponsors of the bill.