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Climate Policy in the Biden Era: A House Divided

Climate Policy in the Biden Era: A House Divided

Although the House remains in Democratic hands, fewer hands are doing the holding. Election losses have led to recriminations and heated discussions between moderate and progressive House Democrats which has even spilled out into activist communities.

Joel B. Stronberg

"After an election in which the country opted for a reset, not a revolution, moderate Democrats hold the power in the party." -  Sullivan and Bade

The momentum of the 2018 Congressional midterm elections in which the Democrats gained 42 seats and regained their majority status in the House of Representatives lost steam in 2020. It had been expected that the 2020 elections would build on the 2018 victories and possibly lead to capturing the Senate.

The anticipated blue wave broke badly, never making it onto Congressional shores. It is destined to profoundly impact the abilities of the Biden White House and Democratic Congressional leaders to take the bold steps needed to slow and then reduce net greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector to zero over the next 15 years.

Although the House remains in Democratic hands, fewer hands are doing the holding. The election losses have led to recriminations and heated discussions between moderate and progressive House Democrats. The who’s right, who’s wrong arguments have spilled out into the activist communities—with each faction accusing the other.

Beyond the shock, awe, and recriminations of losing 13 House seats, the narrowed Democratic House majority poses practical strategic difficulties for Speaker Pelosi and the Biden administration. The Democrats will go into the 117th Congress with 222 seats House seats—just four more than the 218 needed to pass most legislation.

A four-vote margin will prove problematic. The current 14 vote margin gives Pelosi some elbow room should a Democrat or two choose not to cast their vote(s) along party-lines.

With only a four-vote cushion, the Speaker cannot be nearly as forgiving or tolerant of intra-party dissent. Neither can she be as encouraging to the White House that she has the needed votes for any given measure. The slimmer number means that any group of five Democrats—whether moderate or progressive—can hold legislation hostage should it not garner any Republican support. As I’ll discuss in a moment, Republican support for any piece of Democratic legislation--perhaps short of a crisis—is at best dubious.

Should there be any doubt that a small tail can wag a big dog, think of the trouble the Tea Party and House Freedom Caucus caused Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The unwillingness of conservative blocks to follow the Speaker seriously weakened both House leaders—contributing to their throwing in their respective towels and leaving Congress.

The Democrats not only lost a net ten House seats, but four of the Democratic winners are progressives in the mold of Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of the group that’s been dubbed The Squad—all of whom won re-election. The eight Democrats would be enough to hold legislation hostage to their demands—or more to the point, those of their base supporters in groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats.

washington, dc   july 15 us rep rashida tlaib d mi, rep ayanna pressley d ma, rep ilhan omar d mn, and rep alexandria ocasio cortez d ny pause between answering questions during a press conference at the us capitol on july 15, 2019 in washington, dc president donald trump stepped up his attacks on four progressive democratic congresswomen, saying if theyre not happy in the united states they can leave photo by alex wroblewskigetty images


It’s not just progressives that gain leverage with a thin majority. There are more than two dozen members of the House Blue Dog Coalition. Coalition members have managed to win elections in districts more red than blue and believe too progressive a message is at the heart of the Party’s electoral trouble.

Following November’s elections, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had the brass to announce how House Republicans intend to create chaos and likely gridlock with an eye to taking back the lower chamber in the 2022 midterms:

"In this next Congress, we might not be able to schedule the floor, but we are going to run the floor."

House Majority Leader Hoyer (D-MD) responded—"baloney!" I hope the Maryland representative likes his luncheon meat because he may be eating a lot of it over the next two years.

Congressional Republicans are laser-focused on the 2022 elections. Historically, a first-term president’s party loses the midterms. Republicans see the 2020 failure of the Democrats to add to their House majority as an encouraging sign.

Representative Patrick T. McHenry describes what the Democrats will be facing from Republicans in very stark terms:

"On top of that, you have us, the sharks on the opposite side… looking for every opportunity to put the screws to them against their agenda, their bad policy, against bad rules changes… going into a midterm that is decidedly not in their favor."

Moderate fingers are pointing at progressives claiming they’re why Democratic numbers have gone down rather than up. Centrist Representative Abigail Spanberger, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, told the 230 House members on a conference call that, "the party needs not ever to use the term ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again." According to her, the phrase "defunding the police" nearly cost her the race.

Spanberger represents Virginia’s 7th District—which until 2018 was a Republican stronghold. Hers is not the only voice blaming progressive phraseology. Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC), a Black South Carolina congressman, points to the sloganeering, e.g., "defund the police", of the Black Lives Matter movement as responsible for the failure of Democrats to add to their House numbers–let alone to take the Senate.

Clyburn is not only a highly regarded member of Congress and a leader of the African American community. He is rightly credited for Biden’s capture of the Democratic nomination. Had it not been for the Congressman giving Biden a full-throated endorsement just days before the South Carolina primary, the President-Elect’s campaign would likely have folded up its tent long before the last primary vote was cast. Biden limped out of the Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada primaries with few committed delegates and nearly empty campaign coffers.

Progressive fingers are pointing at moderates. A moving force within progressive ranks, Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has, "dismissed recent criticisms from some Democratic House members who have blamed the party’s left for costing them important seats."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez @ SXSW 2019

AOC speaks not only about having beaten Joe Crowley, a longtime Congressman and Chair of the Democratic Caucus, in the 2018 primary but also how other progressives have defeated centrist Democrats in the past two elections. Jamaal Bowman, for example, unseated Representative Eliot Engel. Engel entered the House in 1989 and is the current chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t mince words when speaking about the claim progressives are to blame:

"Frankly, people in some of the most important decision-making positions in the party are becoming so blinded to this anti-activist sentiment that they are blinding themselves to the very assets that they offer."

AOC also suggests that if more of those who lost on November 3rd would have taken up her offers of assistance, they would still have a job. She blames them for not "spending $200,000 on Facebook" and their failure to use social media and other more “modern” forms of campaigning. As a woke troglodyte, I can appreciate both sides of the argument.

Today’s intra-party conflicts have been brewing since the 2018 midterm elections when, after nearly a decade, the Democrats regained the House. At the center of these conflicts are proposed progressive policies like the Green New Deal (GND) and Medicare-for-all. Not-with-standing their differences, the party’s two wings have been flapping more or less in unison through the November elections.

The post-2018 debates between moderates and progressives took place in a jubilant environment. Having just retaken the House, the Democrats were riding high. The momentum of the midterms made the capture of the Senate and the White House palpable. It served to tamp down internal party conflicts—focusing energies instead on defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race.

Now that they won’t have a Trump to kick around anymore and the reality of the 2020 losses have settled in, there may be less willingness on either side to keep quiet. It’s too early to tell with any certainty whether the intra-party fissures will continue to widen or whether congressional Democrats will form ranks to act in relative unison to achieve incrementally as much of Biden’s climate policy platform as possible over the next two to four years.

A recent flare-up within progressive ranks over Representative Jayapal’s(D-WA) Medicare for All bill H.R. 1384 may be a sign of things to come. If it is, Speaker Pelosi may find herself in the same position as the Speakers before her.
Well, that’s a tail for another day.


This article was originally published on the Civil Notion blog by Joel B. Stronberg, MA, JD. of The JBS Group, a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years experience, based in Washington, D.C.


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