The Senate showdown over the Green New Deal follows more than 20 years of mostly symbolic votes that Congress has held on climate change.
Like almost all of the others, this week’s vote is unlikely to have much staying power, some climate observers say.
“Over the years there have been scores of climate resolutions introduced or voted on, and I would say the vast majority have long been forgotten,” Elliot Diringer, a former environmental policy adviser to the Clinton administration, told Bloomberg Environment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to have a final Senate vote on a green deal resolution (S.J.Res.8) in the next few days, following a procedural vote March 26, in hopes that forcing Democrats to vote on the ambitious climate platform could hurt them politically.
Some Democrats are expected to vote “present” on McConnell’s resolution in protest of the majority leader’s tactics. They say a subject as weighty as climate change deserves more thorough deliberation.
All of the Senate Democrats running for president in 2020—Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), as well as Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—have endorsed the Green New Deal, which calls for a decade-long transition to 100 percent renewable energy and huge investment in green jobs.
Republicans say it’s smart politics to make those candidates prove their support by voting for the resolution.
“Politically, the Green New Deal offers a little more to Republicans in terms of political points than a lot of things in recent memory—maybe anything in recent memory,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told reporters March 25. “Because it is so far-fetched and so extreme, and a good number of Democrats both in the House and Senate were quick to jump on board. And they are probably regretting that right about now.”
The House Green New Deal resolution (H.Res.109), authored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has 90 co-sponsors in the House, all Democrats. Eleven Democrats are backing Democrats’ Senate version (S.Res.59), introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Beyond such messaging votes, neither the Senate nor the House have voted on significant climate legislation in nearly a decade.
The one exception: a 1997 resolution by coal-state Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.)—the latter of whom later served as President Barack Obama’s defense secretary—that warned the Clinton administration that the Senate wouldn’t ratify an international climate agreement that didn’t bind China and other rapidly developing nations.
The lopsided result—it was adopted 95-0—was one reason the Obama administration fought to make sure that the 2015 Paris climate deal applied to developed and developing nations alike, with each nation allowed to pledge their own actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The Byrd-Hagel vote “was iconic, even unique among those having a lasting political impact,” said Diringer, now executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).
Other nations look at such resolutions “as a signal of intent of where Congress is,” said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of strategy and policy. “Sure, Byrd-Hagel was nonbinding, but the way it was read was that the U.S. wouldn’t go along on a global deal without developing countries.”
But McConnell’s strategy of forcing Democrats to defend the Green New Deal by contrast is being seen overseas as more a domestic squabble, “a bit of posturing” and a “gotcha moment” to trap Democrats, Meyer said.
Other Messaging Showdowns
Some other climate messaging showdowns in the House and Senate have included:
- A 2005 Senate vote backing efforts to “enact a comprehensive and effective national program” that would include mandatory U.S. caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The nonbinding resolution, offered by former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and approved by voice vote, also put the Senate on record for agreeing that emissions contribute to global warming.
- A July 2018 resolution that House Republicans used to force Democrats to defend a carbon tax just months before the November election. It framed carbon tax policies as detrimental to U.S. families and businesses and not in the best interest of the U.S., and it passed 229-180. The results disappointed advocates of climate action hoping Republicans on a bipartisan climate caucus would come out in force against the resolution: only six Republicans voted no.
- A 2014 resolution by Klobuchar that said “global climate change is occurring” and poses “ongoing risks and challenges” to the people of the U.S. Klobuchar sought unanimous consent on her language, meaning it would pass unless a single senator objected. An objection by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has long questioned whether humans are causing climate change, killed the measure.
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