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A Rare Green Victory on Capitol Hill

A new bill represents a tactical shift for Democrats pursuing efforts to combat climate change and advance renewable energy

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during an interview with comedian Hasan Minhaj for his show Patriot Act.


(Image: Screengrab of Netflix video.)

This week was a big one for the environment on Capitol Hill -- at least on a portion of the Hill.

On Wednesday, the House passed 233 to 188 the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure funding bill. It is not an actual green stimulus bill, but it has some significant green portions on climate change, such as supporting public transit and requiring that 75 percent of US Postal Service vehicles be electric. Most importantly, it is an actual bill, not merely a wish list or request.

Earlier Wednesday, 60 Democratic members of the House sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) requesting that Congress lead the country with a $2 trillion green stimulus plan to a sustainable economic recovery with non-polluting energy and environmental justice, especially for communities of color.

And Tuesday, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued a 500-page plan calling for decarbonization by 2050 and supporting sustainable non-polluting energy like wind and solar. It covered a wide range of green stimulus solutions, like incentivizing domestic manufacture of electric vehicles, improving America’s power grid, and union jobs in clean energy. The plan has some parts similar to the $16 trillion Green New Deal, without mentioning that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) resolution. A small number of environmental groups were unhappy the climate-change committee plan did not include a ban on fracking and producing more fossil fuel. But publicly many activist groups, including Evergreen Action and the Environmental Defense Fund, declared support for this comprehensive plan and wish list.

“Today’s vote and this week’s release of policy recommendations from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis add to growing momentum for Congress to enact practical solutions that create jobs and a safer climate for our children,” said EDF’s Elizabeth Gore, Senior Vice President, Political Affairs.

The only actual bill, the Moving Forward Act on infrastructure repair, seems to follow the tactic of proposing a few sustainable actions within bills, not a comprehensive Green stimulus bill. This tactic was explained by one of the bill’s 129 co-sponsors – Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. In an interview with comedian Hasan Minhaj for Netflix that first aired June 24 on YouTube, Ocasio-Cortez said, “That’s how lobbyists get things done all the time. …They’ll take these massive, thousand-page pieces of legislation and they’ll slip in a line here or slip in a line there. You know, we’ve passed Green New Deal provisions in past legislation, just a lot of people don’t know it yet. Just like the lobbyists do. We’re, we’re very quietly trying to make your drinking water safer…(Did you swagger jack that from the Republicans?) A little bit. A little bit (laughter).”

Even in this playful interview, Ocasio-Cortez offers that the Senate, House, and White House must all be Democratic controlled for any major climate reform, before any major portions of the Green New Deal can pass.

One Democratic congressional staffer, who works on climate issues, had predicted the Moving Forward bill would pass the House. Those voting for it, he said, will all be Democrats and all Republicans will vote against it. “Then nothing will happen with the bill,” he lamented, “because [Sen. Maj. Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will not pick it up in the Senate.” The staffer was right on both points.

McConnell was quoted after the vote saying, “This nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate. It will just join the list of absurd House proposals that were only drawn up to show fealty to the radical left.” President Trump has indicated he would veto the bill and criticized it as, “full of wasteful ‘Green New Deal’ initiatives…”

But the staffer adds, “This is a real bill that can be more easily defended than the Green New Deal, because it is genuinely an infrastructure bill dealing with road and rail repair that happens to have some green issues in it.” One example is strategies to reduce the climate change impacts of the surface transportation system when rebuilding highways and bridges. The staffer concluded, “it would be foolish not to use the latest technology, which is sustainable renewable energy, and not technology from the 1950’s.”

Some progressives wonder why Democrats seem so afraid of Trump’s ability to make the Green New Deal a talking point in his reelection bid. Trump is particularly weak now in national polls, given his deadly delay and mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic; which sent millions into unemployment and the country into recession. Then his anemic response to the Black Lives Matter movement further compounded his drop in popularity.

A recent Pew Institute poll found that a majority of not just Democrats but also Republicans believe that climate change is real. Overall, 65 percent of Americans thought the US is not doing enough to combat climate change. Seventy-nine percent thought America must prioritize finding alternative fuels.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has endorsed major portions of the Green New Deal. But his green plan would cost $1.7 trillion, versus $16 trillion for the Green New Deal. Still, the environmental activist Sunrise Movement, which was key in advocating for the Green New Deal, called Biden’s plan a “comprehensive” effort for tackling climate change, while urging him to decarbonize the US before 2050.

Whatever Biden’s degree of support for the Green New Deal, the November elections will be between a green supporter and a pro-fossil fuel, anti-environment president. So If Joe Biden wins and the Senate is flipped while the House retains its Democratic majority, this week’s bill, plan, and even letter would become talking points and possibly blueprints for the future.

If Donald Trump is reelected and Mitch McConnell presides over a Republican majority Senate, this week’s wins become tomorrow’s forgotten hopes to deal with the climate crisis.

TYT Investigative Reporter Ti-Hua Chang is an award-winning journalist who has worked for CBS News and other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @TiHuaChang.

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