In coronavirus aid debate, GOP sees a favorite target: Green New Deal

Meanwhile, Democrats are castigating the Republicans for provisions they said would give billions of dollars to big corporations

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., walks through the Senate subway in Washington on March 12, 2020. Barrasso and other Republicans have targeted Democrats' green measures in the coronavirus stimulus bill.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., walks through the Senate subway in Washington on March 12, 2020. Barrasso and other Republicans have targeted Democrats' green measures in the coronavirus stimulus bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:25pm

As Congress struggles to hammer out a deal on the next coronavirus relief package, Senate Republicans have found a familiar line of attack on Democrats’ priorities: environmental provisions that the GOP says are irrelevant.

In the House, a bill introduced by Democrats on Monday would require airline carriers receiving federal assistance to cut their carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2035, and 50 percent by 2050. The measure would also require airlines and their ticket agents to tell customers about the carbon emissions of their flights. It would provide $500 million for “sustainable aviation fuel.”

[Interior official: Border wall helps environment, sacred sites]

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Senate Democrats want to add similar provisions, including renewable energy tax credits, in that chamber’s version of the bill.

The latest available versions of the House and Senate bills do not appear to include measures that directly relate to renewable energy credits.

"They wanted to give unprecedented authority to organized labor and to address fuel emissions standards for airlines, none of which is relevant to the immediate crisis that is at hand,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “This sideshow should not be part of the minority leader’s priorities.”

Among other provisions, the House bill would provide $1 billion for the Transportation Department to buy fuel-inefficient planes from airlines that they would replace with new models with lower carbon emissions. It would also mandate a study of climate change mitigation efforts in the airline industry.

'Cash for clunkers'

Marc Scribner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said there's little incentive for airlines to participate in a "cash for clunkers" arrangement, recalling the Obama administration's effort to encourage car buying after the 2008 financial crisis. "It makes more sense," he said, "for them to keep their older aircraft," which are often paid fully paid for.

"These are aircraft airlines want to use to sell off to raise cash or to use as collateral to get conventional loan financing," he said, adding, "I don’t think $1 billion for an airline 'cash for clunkers' program would address anything to do with the coronavirus outbreak but may actually put airlines at a disadvantage in terms of using normal means to keep themselves afloat."

In a string of Senate floor speeches Monday and Tuesday, Republicans often invoked the Green New Deal, a massive policy proposal to overhaul the U.S. economy and reduce emissions, in their critiques of Democratic priorities.

“Democrats have been focused on fuel emissions standards. … In the midst of an unprecedented health and financial crisis, Democrats have been delaying a major relief bill in hopes that they can include a laundry list of their pet projects, projects that have absolutely nothing to do with providing financial relief to Americans or ensuring that medical professionals have the resources they need to fight this virus,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the Democrats' bill was made up of “one special interest giveaway” after another.

“Really, money for tax breaks for solar panels, for wind turbines?” he said. “They are holding up voting for this emergency bill to help the American people in terms of the economy and in terms of our health care over solar panels and wind turbines, a green new deal with airline emissions.”

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Small impact

Collectively, the environmental provisions would do little to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and pale compared with the ambitious policy aspirations in the Green New Deal.

Meanwhile, Democrats are castigating the Republicans for provisions they said would give billions of dollars to big corporations without accounting for how it would be spent. Without mentioning environmental provisions, Schumer on the Senate floor said that Democrats want “any bailout” money to be accompanied with “real oversight” and transparency.

Schumer said Democrats were focused on issues that directly concern the entangled public health and economic crises.

“We are looking at things that deal directly with this crisis,” he said. He did not explain how airline carbon emissions were related to the pandemic.

The House Democrats’ plan also would delay sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve required by law for a year. “The price of crude oil has fallen to its lowest level in nearly two decades, so selling oil from the SPR now would result in a significant loss of value to the taxpayer,” a summary of the bill reads.

The legislation would also prohibit states and utilities that get stimulus money from turning off electricity, HVAC systems or drinking and wastewater services for customers unable to pay their bills during the virus emergency.

Pelosi said Tuesday congressional Democrats and the administration were nearing a deal. As of Tuesday afternoon, it was unclear what environmental or energy elements were in the latest Senate bill.

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.