If you’re like most people, you probably missed the news Thursday evening that the House had passed H.R. 4447, the Clean Energy Jobs and Innovation Act. The nearly 900-page piece of legislation itself isn’t much to write home about—several different energy-related bills hastily smashed together into a $135 billion package, with some halfway decent provisions packed in alongside plenty of handouts to the fossil fuel industry. But the voting pattern could say a lot about the future of climate legislation should Democrats win back the White House or even Senate come November.
Passed 220–185, the bill was a major priority for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Frank Pallone, who were eager to influence the conversation on the even less progressive Senate companion bill. Most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Green New Deal co-sponsors voted for it. But the Squad—as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib are informally known—voted against it, as did other progressives like Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal. Their “no” votes followed opposition to the bill from the Sunrise Movement, Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, and nearly 100 other progressive organizations. “If passed as written,” Climate Justice Alliance director Angela Adrar wrote in a statement this week, “this bill will decrease environmental justice and increase environmental racism.” In all, 18 Democrats bucked party leaders and voted no—although conservative Democrat Kendra Horn likely did so for quite different reasons, being from an oil-heavy Oklahoma district.
Progressive environmental groups’ objections to the bill hinge on its giveaways to fossil fuel companies, including its support of their still-shaky plans to capture carbon dioxide from coal and gas-fired power plants and industrial operations. “While we’re pleased that this bill makes some important advances on renewable energy access and distribution and emissions reductions, it couldn’t be clearer that any new government investment toward fossil fuel companies is unacceptable and quite simply incompatible with tackling environmental injustice and the climate crisis,” the Sunrise Movement’s Lauren Manus said in an emailed statement.
Among the “no” votes were some less brazenly progressive members who could be worried about the recent fates of their colleagues Elliot Engel and Joe Crowley, both ousted in the last two cycles by underdog primary challengers from their left. Three of the New York Democrats who joined Ocasio-Cortez in voting against the package—Grace Meng, Carolyn Maloney, and Jerry Nadler—faced primary challenges from their left this year. None managed to pick up much steam, but insurgent groups could recruit a successful opponent with time. Two other New York Democrats, Adriano Espaillat and Nydia Velázquez, voted against H.R. 4447 as well.
New York has become something of a hot spot for insurgent Democrats, a fact that’s kept New York City–area Democrats especially on their toes. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, backed by the left-leaning campaign group Justice Democrats, are the most well-known nationally, recent elections have also seen progressives and socialists oust longtime incumbents from their seats in Albany. In 2018, six mostly young progressives beat out members of the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of Democrats who caucused with Republicans and handed them a de facto majority in the state assembly. This year, a number of progressives and Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed candidates won primaries against incumbents for safe Democratic seats in the state legislature and will almost certainly head there come November.
Asked about the vote on Thursday, Waleed Shahid of the Justice Democrats, which opposed H.R. 4447, said, “I think you’re starting to see progressives draw some lines in the sand about what is and what isn’t practical climate policy that matches the scale of the crisis.”
H.R. 4447 could be an odd preview for the fault lines of climate fights to come on Capitol Hill. In the lead-up to Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans fearing defeat joined a handful of carbon pricing bills that primed the pump for the cap-and-trade legislation known as Waxman-Markey, which passed the House but failed even to come to a vote in the Senate, despite Democratic control over every branch of government. At the time, Democratic strategists made the (then somewhat plausible) argument that some Republicans were amenable to the idea of seeing some kind of climate bill pass through Congress. So Democrats and big green groups crafted their proposal to suit them and the companies that said they would join the cause.
For many reasons, that didn’t work. And the dynamic now looks a bit different. Despite H.R. 4447 being seemingly tailor-made so as not to offend GOP sensibilities—throwing cash at innovation and corporations, including polluters—just seven Republicans ended up voting for it, with most having been scared off by the White House’s threat to veto the measure should it come to Trump’s desk. Seven isn’t zero, and it’s certainly not meaningless. But what failed to win over a sizable number of Republicans also alienated progressives, who argued that the bill’s best parts (funding for renewables, hydrofluorocarbon regulations, building codes) were too small and its worst elements (giveaways for “clean” coal and gas) were too big. Given that it passed the House and has a nonzero chance of getting through the Senate in some more watered-down, polluter-friendly form, Pelosi and Pallone may well see the bill as a big win and proof of concept for the types of climate measures that can pass. Whether it’ll actually do anything to help keep emissions down is a separate question and remains to be seen.
In the United States, passing climate policy presents a seemingly impossible dilemma: Any measures that’ll actually help tackle the problem will draw Republican opposition; they’ll probably oppose those that won’t help, too. The traditional Democratic Party response has been to water down climate policy so as to make it acceptable. Notably, however, the GOP didn’t claw its way back to electoral relevance in 2010 by seeking common ground with its opponents. With brute force and generous corporate contributions, uncompromising Tea Party insurgents—tapping into grassroots momentum—fought like hell to set and enforce the party line of ideas that would have been confined to the fringe right a few years prior. With polar-opposite politics, insurgent progressive Democrats now seem eager to do something similar on their side of the aisle—and face a long uphill battle against their party’s top brass.