Congress

Green New Deal: Some Democrats on the fence

Top Democrats who would oversee legislation in the House are reluctant to endorse plan that would remake economy

Democratic Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have championed the Green New Deal on Capitol Hill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A resolution outlining the goals of the Green New Deal capped off its first week of a somewhat messy rollout with mixed reviews, even from typically Democratic strongholds like labor unions.

In the House, the top two Democrats who would oversee any legislation that comes out of the plan have remained reluctant to fully endorse it, stopping at lauding the goals and the enthusiasm behind them. And Republicans quickly branded the Green New Deal as an extreme, socialist plan with unrealistic proposals to eliminate air travel and cows.

[Democrats unveil Green New Deal that would push government to make radical changes]

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-New York, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, said he embraces the “goals and principles” of the Green New Deal resolution, but did not endorse the broader plan to radically remake the U.S. economy to combat climate change and make the country more resilient.

“I appreciate the consciousness that they've raised among Americans coast to coast, but I think my role as chairman and the role of the subcommittee ... is to design and develop the tools that get us to those goals and that will be done on science-based, evidence-based grounding,” he said.

Tonko’s committee would be one of the first stops for much of the legislation that might follow the Green New Deal resolution.

The nonbinding resolution introduced Feb. 7 in the House by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who campaigned as a champion of the Green New Deal agenda, and in the Senate by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, calls on lawmakers to endorse steps to vastly remake many sectors of the U.S. economy, including moving to 100 percent renewable energy, upgrading infrastructure, boosting oversight of financial services and cleaning up farming processes. It also calls for social justice reforms for minority, low income and other communities that have historically not enjoyed the benefits of the country’s economic growth.

But the rollout, while widely cheered by progressive groups and the more liberal Democrats, opened a door for Republicans to tap into voters' fears by framing the Green New Deal as a socialist to-do list. An unvetted fact sheet on Ocasio-Cortez’s website stated that the plan would provide economic security “to all who are unable or unwilling to work,” a stipulation not included in the resolution and one that has been repeated by critics.

While the fact sheet was scrapped, it spawned other fake documents online, and Republicans quickly entered it into the congressional record.

“The reality is that they have said they would attempt to eliminate all planes, all air travel within a decade,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming said Wednesday, though the resolution does not propose to do that. “The extent to which this would be fundamentally devastating for the economy, we're going to continue to make sure people understand that they know what's in this deal.”

Watch: Democrats downplay appearance of disunity on Green New Deal

The retracted fact sheet said that carbon emissions from air travel may not be eliminated in 10 years, but did not call for an end to air travel. The proposed resolution makes no mention of air travel.

‘Millions’ of jobs

One of the key selling points of the Green New Deal is that it would create “millions” of jobs, with Markey describing it as “the greatest blue collar job-creation program” in a generation.

While it stipulates that those jobs would be family-sustaining union jobs, collective bargaining groups have not been quick to embrace the plan, and at least one major union has rejected the plan for fear of the disruption it would wreak on some industries.

[Mitch McConnell will make Democratic senators vote on the ‘Green New Deal’]

“We don’t think this is very well thought through. .... This looks like a fairy tale to us,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a phone interview.

He questioned whether “green jobs” is a code word for "keep-it-in-the-ground," a movement by environmentalists to stop fossil fuel extraction.

“We just think this is a political maneuver,” O’Sullivan said, adding that he’d like to be involved in the crafting of any such legislation. “There’s too much of an impact on the people that we represent, the jobs that we represent.”

A spokesman for the AFL-CIO provided CQ Roll Call with remarks the group’s president, Richard Trumka, made last year for “broader context” on how the union is examining the Green New Deal’s prescriptions.

“Climate strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now ... plans that devastate communities today, while offering vague promises about the future . . . they are more than unjust ... they fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis,” Trumka said at a climate conference last year.

Carol Zabin, who directs the Green Economy Program at the Labor Center of the University of California, Berkeley, said that while some unions are warming up to the idea, they have fears that echo those of the two large unions.

“The concern is: Will they be good jobs? Are we going to throw oil and gas workers under the bus or are we going to transition them?” Zabin, who is analyzing the proposal for California, said. “It could be really, really good for workers, but we have to explicitly have strong labor protections.”

Messaging

As Democrats grapple with how to approach the Green New Deal, Republicans have taken to cable television and social media to brand it as a dangerous socialist fantasy that could bankrupt the country. Fox News aired 34 segments about the proposal on its prime-time shows, more than three times the combined number of segments shown by MSNBC and CNN, according to the left-leaning media monitoring group Media Matters. That analysis found that just 14 of Fox’s segments mentioned climate change.

Amid that messaging effort, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell started the process to bring the resolution for a vote to force Democrats to put on the record their positions on the Green New Deal. That could provide Republicans a tool to use against vulnerable Democrats in 2020 congressional and presidential races.

McConnell’s plan has put Democrats on the defensive. Tonko said it’s the GOP’s way of skirting the need to address climate change, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Thursday called the Republican’s move a “cheap, cynical” ploy.

Watch: Trump: Green New Deal sounds like a ‘high school term paper that got a low mark’

“Republicans have controlled this chamber for four years, and not a single bill to significantly reduce carbon emissions,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “So now with amazing irony, the first measure to address climate change from the Republican leader, the first one in four years, will be one that he wants all of his members to vote against.”

Democrats agree the plan is ambitious and any legislation to come of it would require a lot of work across several committees and federal agencies.

Asked whether he’d respond to a petition by activists to get him to endorse the Green New Deal, Tonko said he wants to be “science-based and evidence-based” in the way his committee approaches it.

“Many, if not all, of the points I embrace, certainly the more science and tech areas I embrace,” he said. “But the commodity of energy, for example, is a very important commodity. You need ... to have reliability, and you need to have capacity issues met; it's important to the quality of life in our homes, and it's important to competitiveness.”

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