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Democrats tout Paris Agreement bill as ‘critical first step’ towards larger climate efforts

Climate change is set to be a leading issue going into 2020 and Democrats know that.

U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (4th L) speaks to members of the media as (L-R) Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) listen at the lobby of Longworth House Office Building November 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (4th L) speaks to members of the media as (L-R) Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) listen at the lobby of Longworth House Office Building November 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A bill that would require the United States to stay in the Paris Agreement is expected to pass the House along party lines this week, with Democrats seeking to assert their unified commitment to climate action and to meaningful legislation should they take back the White House in 2020.

Lawmakers are set to vote as soon as Thursday on House Resolution 9 (H.R. 9), the Climate Action Now Act, a bill that would urge recommitment to the Paris Agreement while barring the use of federal funds to aid withdrawing from the landmark climate pact. President Donald Trump has pledged to withdraw from the agreement and has repeatedly criticized its demands on the United States, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in world history.

The legislation is all but certain to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate however, and it does little in the way of taking immediate action on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. But it has offered Democrats an opportunity to come together and stake out a position on climate action as it becomes a hot-button issue going into the 2020 presidential election.

“We will not run, we will not retreat from the climate crisis,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), the head of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the lead sponsor of H.R. 9, on a call with reporters Wednesday.

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Other party leaders struck a similar note, emphasizing Democratic unity around the Paris Agreement, which sets a target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. “The main thing we’re trying to do with this bill is to make it clear… that we do not favor withdrawal,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The United States cannot technically withdraw until November 4, 2020 — one day after the presidential election.

There is no Senate equivalent of H.R. 9 and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would need to call a vote on the bill if it is not taken up by committee chairs in the upper chamber. But with 224 co-sponsors, H.R. 9 is likely to at least pass the House, handing a win to Democrats on climate action at a time when the party is torn over how to tackle the issue.

In February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Green New Deal resolution, a blueprint calling for a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Around a quarter of House Democrats have voiced support for the resolution, as have many 2020 contenders in the Senate. But party leaders have pushed back on the Green New Deal and support for the effort is shaky at best across the wider caucus.

That’s not true of H.R. 9, legislation that is limited in its scope and offers lawmakers an opening to stake out a position on climate action without having to commit to more contentious proposals.

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“The vast majority of us believe… that climate change is real and that we cause it,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), a cosponsor of the bill and the author of an amendment that would strongly encourage the United States to surpass its commitments under the Paris Agreement. She told ThinkProgress that recommitting to the pact “should be one of the first things that Congress tries to move forward with” on climate action.

Another co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) told ThinkProgress that the bill is a “critical first step” towards leading on climate issues. He argued that the Paris withdrawal has largely left the United States without a leadership presence as global climate efforts advance.

“That [the withdrawal] cheapened our image on the world stage, and means we don’t have a seat at the table where the most important decisions about the future of our planet are being made,” said Casten, who emphasized that he hopes H.R. 9 will be a “catalyst” for other climate efforts as Democrats push for broader legislation.

Virtually all Democratic presidential contenders have expressed support for climate action. And one candidate, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), has made it the chief focus of his campaign. But candidates have been slow to offer their own climate proposals, with a few exceptions.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently offered plans relating to public lands and environmental justice, respectively. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) meanwhile rolled out a sweeping, four-part, $5 trillion plan this week that aims to see the United States achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

More proposals are likely to follow, setting the stage for potential major climate action should a Democrat be elected in 2020. And while such legislation would be far broader in scope than simply recommitting to the Paris Agreement, supporters of H.R. 9 argue the bill is a key first step.

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Democratic lawmakers have also largely sounded a hopeful note on the bill and emphasized its bipartisan appeal. Houlahan, who represents a politically mixed district in a fossil fuel-reliant state, said that she is hopeful about eventual support from Republicans on climate legislation along with most Democrats.

There is some cause for Democratic optimism. Polling increasingly shows Americans are deeply concerned about climate change, and eager for lawmakers to act. Some Republicans have asserted that they accept the science on climate change and argued that the party is capable of producing legislation to tackle global warming.

“Some Republicans are finally waking up and acknowledging that climate change is an imminent threat, but the Trump Administration continues to peddle its anti-science rhetoric around climate change,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, president of the science-focused political group 314 Action, in a statement to ThinkProgress. “[H.R. 9] is a much-needed step in the direction of reaffirming the United States’ commitment to meaningful action on climate change.”

But conservative groups have already pushed back on the bill. A letter circulated Tuesday encouraged lawmakers to reject H.R. 9, with groups like the American Conservative Union, the Heartland Institute, and Heritage Action among the signatories, all of which are known for climate change denial. Some Republican lawmakers have already indicated that they will not vote for the bill, meanwhile, and an amendment from Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) would remove language barring withdrawal from the Paris Agreement — the heart of the legislation.

And while Democrats are overwhelmingly supportive of the bill, those advocating for more drastic climate action have already indicated that they consider the legislation too limited. Ocasio-Cortez said this week that “there is no harm in passing” the bill, but took aim at its scope.

“The idea that we can just reintroduce 2009 policies is not reflective of action that is necessary for now in the world of today,” she said.