Senate debate over the hotly contested Green New Deal resolution is expected to come to a head on Tuesday as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tries to force a divide among Democrats by calling for a vote on the ambitious proposal, even though no legislation has been proposed.
Democrats, meanwhile, are working to gain the upper hand with a display of unity, despite their differing stances on what meaningful climate action should look like. The final vote will serve as an expression of the party’s overarching goal that Congress take action on climate change.
At the center of the struggle is the resolution itself, a sweeping blueprint for rapidly slashing carbon emissions on a scale and time frame consistent with the latest science. After running on a progressive platform that included bold climate action, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) unveiled the Green New Deal resolution with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in February. The proposal, endorsed by the youth-led Sunrise Movement and other groups, calls for meeting 100 percent of the country’s power demand with renewable, emissions-free sources in around a decade, all while using the transition to create jobs and enshrine social justice principles, like equal access to education and universal health care.
Republicans have ridiculed the resolution as “radical socialism” and argued it will do everything from stopping hamburger production to banning air travel. The Senate vote is widely considered a stunt by McConnell, who sees climate action as a political loser and hopes it will put a halt to the ever-growing momentum behind the Green New Deal.
As the debate has forced climate change into the top tier of political issues this year, both sides are looking at Tuesday’s vote as an opportunity to score political points. Republicans think they can associate Democrats with a “socialist agenda” and Democrats are eager to shine a light on Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge or act on climate change — all at a time when polling increasingly shows Americans are widely concerned about global warming.
“This vote is a sham and little more than a political ploy to protect vulnerable Republicans from having to defend their climate science denial,” Markey told ThinkProgress in a statement Monday. “I challenge Republicans to offer their own proposals on combatting the threat of climate change instead of blocking action to combat it.”
Here’s what you need to know about why the vote is happening and how Democrats are approaching McConnell’s test.
How did we get here?
Climate momentum has exploded onto the national stage after more than a decade of relative inaction.
The sudden attention reflects a number of factors, including several years of devastating natural disasters across the United States, along with grim climate findings from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment.
Both reports were released last fall, right around the 2018 midterm elections and the ascendancy of figures like Ocasio-Cortez, who has worked closely with the Sunrise Movement to advocate for a Green New Deal. That partnership helped make the Green New Deal, and aggressive climate action more broadly, a top political issue this year.
Since its introduction, the resolution has garnered significant support in the House, with almost 40 percent of the Democratic caucus backing the Green New Deal. But the Senate has been a different story.
While the resolution has received the backing of every Democratic 2020 presidential contender in the Senate, only around a dozen senators have signed on. Some lawmakers have expressed outright hostility, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who sparred with young climate activists in a viral video that showed the senator dismissing the Green New Deal.
The young people, ages seven to 16, requested Feinstein’s support for the resolution. But a defiant Feinstein pushed back. “I know what I’m doing. [And] you come in here, and you say it has to be ‘my way or the highway,’” she said at the time. “I don’t respond to that.”
That attitude is hardly an anomaly and Republicans are well aware of divided Democratic sentiment. Days after Ocasio-Cortez and Markey presented the resolution, McConnell announced a vote, seemingly in an effort to exacerbate Democratic divisions.
Initially, it seemed the vote would be imminent. In reaction to McConnell’s original call for a vote, all 47 Senate Democrats signed on to a so-called “unity” resolution declaring human-driven climate change to be real and calling for concrete plans to swiftly combat the crisis.
That resolution does not contain any timeline or specifics with regards to how to address climate change, although Democratic officials have used it to point to the party’s united stance on climate science, a sharp contrast with Republicans.
But the unity resolution did serve as an attempt to circumvent the vote — and briefly appeared to delay McConnell, who soon after said a vote could be scheduled any time before the August recess.
Now, more than a month after the Senate majority leader first threatened it, the vote appears to be set for this week. But all of the back-and-forth allowed Democrats to slowly mobilize and strategize about how best to approach McConnell’s challenge to party unity.
How will Democrats approach the vote?
Officials and staffers tracking the vote told ThinkProgress that it’s unclear if Democrats will vote uniformly, with a few members — such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, an ardent supporter of the coal industry — expected to take a stand against the resolution. Many plan to vote “present,” a tactic Democrats have historically used on issues like health care legislation when faced with pressure from Republicans.
Voting present would be different than voting yes or no, options that would be read as stances on the resolution itself. Instead, some Senate staffers argue, voting present would prioritize party unity and send a message to McConnell. Of course, to be an effective strategy, every Democratic senator must vote present, which appears unlikely.
Those planning to vote present include more conservative Democrats like Feinstein, who faced outrage from constituents following her clash with young climate activists. They also include some longtime climate advocates in the upper chamber, like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), along with Markey, who introduced the Green New Deal resolution.
“I’ll join my colleagues in voting ‘present.’ If they want real votes, bring a real bill. If Senate Republicans want to force a vote they want to fail, on a huge issue that they have no solution for — bring it on,” Whitehouse told ThinkProgress in a statement.
Requests for comment from ThinkProgress to all 2020 Democratic presidential contenders in the Senate went unanswered, but even the Sunrise Movement has indicated support for voting present. “It’s a sham vote,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the organization, in a statement.
Did McConnell’s efforts to divide Democrats backfire?
While McConnell’s tactics may have initially seemed like an easy opportunity to divide the opposition, Democratic lawmakers argue it has instead given them the opportunity to do something else: Make climate change a central issue.
Three weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on McConnell to establish a Senate select committee on climate change, akin to the House committee, which does not draft legislation.
“Until they in the majority put a plan on the floor as to what they would do with climate change, they don’t have much standing,” Schumer said at the time.
Climate advocates seem to agree.
“It’s very clear that Mitch McConnell is more concerned with a political stunt than he is with tackling the very real and present crisis of climate change,” Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), told ThinkProgress.
Democrats may not be united behind the Green New Deal, but Democratic Hill staffers and climate organizations alike indicated they feel the wind has shifted against McConnell. Climate action polls well with the U.S. public and advocates largely agree that any scenario allowing Democrats to draw contrasts with Republicans on climate action is a boon for the opposition party.
“Are Republicans even acknowledging that climate change is a problem?” asked Chieffo. “Because that’s what voters want.”
What does this mean for climate action?
Even if the Green New Deal eventually gains unanimous support from Democrats, it will still be far from a reality; Republicans control both the Senate and the White House until at least the end of 2020. But that doesn’t mean the idea is completely doomed.
Ocasio-Cortez has said she intends to introduce Green New Deal legislation in the House by March 2020 at the latest. It’s unclear whether that legislation will consist of one large bill or a number of smaller pieces of legislation. New Consensus, a think tank working on the policy components of the Green New Deal, is also hard at work fleshing out the logistics of the sweeping effort. The climate action drumbeat will continue regardless of party divisions, especially with strong support from the House Democratic caucus and several Democratic presidential hopefuls.
While Republicans have not offered any kind of concrete plan to address climate change, some GOP members in both chambers are breaking with their party’s intransigence and talking more about the need for action. In a Washington Post op-ed published March 8, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski joined Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat, in calling for climate action.
“There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it,” the senators wrote, calling for “adopting reasonable policies” while offering few specifics.
Meanwhile, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) — who once sponsored a bill to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and has been described as “the Trumpiest Congressman in Trump’s Washington” — has come out in support of climate action.
That shift might seem small, but it’s a world away from the climate conversations lawmakers were having even as recently as last year. And with climate action enjoying broad support from U.S. voters, supporters of the Green New Deal are remaining optimistic about their odds in the future.
“Leader McConnell and Republicans may think the Green New Deal is just a resolution,” Markey told ThinkProgress, “but it is a revolution and it cannot and will not be stopped.”