Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a procedural vote on the resolution — a wide-ranging progressive wish list aimed at making the US carbon-neutral by 2030 — this week, in an effort to get Democrats on the record about their support for the ambitious proposal. And Democrats, largely, didn’t bite.
Nearly all members of the Democratic caucus voted “present” when the resolution came up for a vote on Tuesday, with just four breaking and voting against it. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Doug Jones (D-AL), all lawmakers from more moderate or conservative states voted “No” on the resolution. Sen. Angus King (I-ME), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also voted against it.
Democrats predominately voted “present” on the resolution as a means of calling out Republicans, who had set up this vote to highlight potential splits in the Democratic caucus and force lawmakers to splinter from a high-profile, progressive idea.
As the thinking goes, if only part of the Democratic caucus wound up backing the idea, Republicans could argue that it didn’t actually have enough support from the party. They could also suggest that 2020 Senate Democrats — all of whom have expressed support for the proposal — weren’t actually down to follow through, if they didn’t vote in favor of it. Additionally, the move was aimed at putting Democrats from more moderate states in a tough position, forcing them to choose between backing a popular liberal idea and potentially turning off some of their constituents.
Given its underlying motivations, McConnell’s plan got a scathing rebuke from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and a progressive star in the Democratic Party.
“The Senate vote is a perfect example of that kind of superficial approach to government,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Tuesday. “What McConnell’s doing is that he’s trying to rush this bill to the floor without a hearing, without any markups, without working through committee — because he doesn’t want to save our planet. Because he thinks we can drink oil in 30 years when all our water is poisoned.”
Much like House Democrats responded when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan sought to hold a vote on abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a plan he ultimately reversed), Senate Democrats didn’t fall for it. Ocasio-Cortez said she agrees with that strategy and didn’t try to whip Senate votes on the bill.
“I think it’s fine because this is a procedural question,” she said. “I’m totally fine either way, because it’s been rushed through.”
Why McConnell is holding this vote
Almost as soon as Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal resolution, McConnell and Republicans pounced.
Even as the climate plan is becoming a litmus test for 2020 presidential candidates — every declared contender in the upper chamber, including Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, have also signed on as a co-sponsor — McConnell wanted to put moderate Senate Democrats on the spot by making them publicly vote yes or no on the resolution. It’s a way to sow chaos in the party and create fodder for political ads ahead of 2020 Senate elections.
The majority leader pretty much laid out his strategy in public remarks he gave about this plan.
“Every member of this body will have the opportunity to cast a clear vote, this very week,” he said in a floor speech on Monday. “The American people deserve to know which senators can reject this crippling proposal right away and which senators find themselves unable to do that.”
It’s a tactic Ryan attempted to leverage to get Democrats to fracture on the question of abolishing ICE during the height of the family separation crisis at the border, when that rallying cry was proving divisive in the Democratic Party. It was also the middle of the 2018 midterms, and Republicans calculated it would be a losing message for Democrats, especially as they were trying to flip Republican-leaning districts across the country. (Democrats still won in a wave election.)
It didn’t work as planned; the progressive members of Congress who had introduced the bill quickly vowed to vote against it on the floor, saying they wouldn’t participate in Republicans’ stunt vote, and Ryan walked away from the idea.
Now that the 2020 election is very much underway, McConnell has a similar calculus when it comes to the Green New Deal: Not everyone is on board with the plan, and he wants to underscore the division in the Democratic Party. A McConnell spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the intent of the vote.
Regardless of where they stand on the Green New Deal itself, however, Senate Democrats were relatively unified in their opposition to McConnell’s political maneuver.
“This vote is a sham and little more than a political ploy to protect vulnerable Republicans from having to defend their climate science denial,” Markey, the chief sponsor of the resolution, said in a statement. “I will be voting present, and I challenge Republicans to offer their own proposals on combating the threat of climate change instead of blocking all action to combat it.”
Progressive activists are on board with this strategy
Senate Democrats’ plan to all vote present on the Green New Deal had the blessing of progressive environmental groups that are rallying around the bill. Even though some progressive groups have clashed with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the past on issues including immigration, they’re largely in agreement with him on the latest strategy.
“This vote is a sham, and Democrats are going to be treating it as such,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the environmental group Sunrise Movement, which is spearheading advocacy around the Green New Deal. “Mitch McConnell is calling for a vote on a resolution that he has absolutely no intention of passing.”
But this tactic alone won’t be enough for climate activists; the groups want to see more action from both House and Senate Democratic leaders on combating climate change.
While Schumer and Green New Deal activists align on Democrats’ punting McConnell’s attempt to put them on the spot on the Green New Deal, progressive groups still want the minority leader to sign on to the sweeping resolution himself. Neither Schumer nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has done this yet. Despite the momentum around the Green New Deal, the Democratic leaders aren’t about to pick favorites — signaling openness to a wide array of climate solutions.
“Public sentiment will help us pass the most bold common denominator,” Pelosi told reporters last month. “I’m very excited about all of it, and I welcome a Green New Deal and any other proposals people have out there.”
But Sunrise Movement and other groups say it’s time to commit to the boldest plan out there to combat a worldwide climate crisis.
“We particularly want Sen. Schumer to continue to make climate change central to his agenda and come through and back the Green New Deal,” O’Hanlon said.