The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McConnell aims to use Green New Deal to divide Democrats, but party is unifying against his show vote

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks to the Senate chambers for a vote on March 14, 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Senate Republicans are trying to elevate the ideas and personalities of House Democrats in a bid to divide the opposition into the rising liberal stars, the party’s presidential contenders and its more mainstream lawmakers.

The effort begins with a midweek vote on the Green New Deal, a loosely defined effort to combat climate change by dramatically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions coupled with job creation. Democrats have spent years proposing different versions of legislation to rein in the effects of climate change, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has taken the Green New Deal and raised it to a new level with her political star power.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) believes the proposal, written by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), embraced by several top Democratic presidential contenders but criticized by the AFL-CIO as unrealistic, would be politically divisive for a party that has made winning back Midwest battleground states a top priority for 2020.

No one is proposing to "eliminate all planes, cows and the military." No one created "doctored" versions of the deal that included these outlandish proposals. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

“The prevailing fashions in New York and San Francisco, that’s what is defining today’s Democrats,” McConnell said during a floor speech two weeks ago.

By citing those two cities, McConnell made clear that Republicans want to turn the 29-year-old from the Bronx into a political weapon akin to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

He has taken the original Green New Deal proposal, put it in his own resolution and scheduled what amounts to a show vote as the bill lacks the votes in the Republican-led Senate. But it’s doubtful the strategy will produce any immediate signs of division, as Democrats have largely rallied around the strategy from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to vote present.

The liberal activists who have helped Ocasio-Cortez elevate the Green New Deal are on board with the plan, dismissing McConnell as someone who sides with industry over the environment.

“The only reason he is calling for this vote is to score some points for the oil and gas executives who bankroll his campaigns. This vote is a sham,” Stephen O’Hanlon, spokesman of the Sunrise Movement, told The Washington Post’s Energy 202 newsletter.

The Energy 202: Senate Democrats look for unity on eve of Green New Deal vote

A week after Democrats won the House majority in the 2018 midterms, Ocasio-Cortez joined members of the Sunrise Movement protesting in Pelosi’s congressional office demanding she restart a special committee to study climate change.

Markey called the McConnell effort “a sham” and plans to vote present even though he unveiled the proposal with Ocasio-Cortez.

But the Republicans seem intent, for now at least, to keep banking on the political newcomer’s image as one that will drive voters away from Democrats.

A week ago, as word spread that Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) was considering a run against Sen. John Cornyn (R), the National Republican Senatorial Committee released what has become a staple of GOP research, showing Castro’s votes aligned with Pelosi 97 percent of the time.

Then, the NRSC added a new wrinkle, touting that he “votes with AOC 94% of the time,” referring to Ocasio-Cortez, and that he co-sponsored the Green New Deal.

The committee’s Twitter page has pinned a Feb. 11 tweet at the top of the feed, showing Ocasio-Cortez’s image from the news conference when she and Markey unveiled the plan.

Initial polling on the first-term Democrat indicates that her image has taken a hit, as 31 percent of Americans have a favorable image of Ocasio-Cortez while 41 percent have a negative view, according to a Gallup poll released March 15.

But those numbers skew in that direction almost entirely because Republicans have become so fixated on her.

Following such a heavy focus on her from conservative media outlets and Fox News, 73 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of her — more than the 56 percent of Democrats who have a favorable opinion.

“Fox News has turned into ‘AOC TMZ’,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted after the poll’s release.

Republicans have a way to go to transform Ocasio-Cortez and her proposals into something resembling what they did a decade ago with anti-Pelosi ads that became the fulcrum of the 2010 midterm campaign that swung sharply against Democrats.

Democrats are pushing back by focusing on the danger of climate change and not making it about any individual politician, and they believe that several Senate Republicans could face political peril on the issue.

A Gallup poll last year found that 62 percent of adults thought that the government was doing “too little” to protect the environment, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 66 percent believe climate change is a “serious problem.”

Last fall, 13 federal agencies said climate change posed an environmental and economic threat that would worsen if the nation failed to combat global warming.

Schumer has offered a brief, simple resolution that begins with the most basic statement possible — “climate change is real” — and requests Congress to take “immediate action” on the issue. All Democrats have signed onto it, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the only Republican to cosponsor it.

Two GOP senators up for reelection next year, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), will be voting on environmental policy as their states struggle to recover from historic flooding.

Last fall, Ernst said the climate “ebbs and flows through time” and Sasse said the problem isn’t something to legislate or regulate but rather “innovate our way into the future.”

Just on the prevailing fashions in New York and San Francisco. That’s what is defining today’s Democrats.

Elevating rising stars in the House is an old trick by Senate leaders.

In 2011, as Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) served as the House Budget Committee chairman, Senate Democrats forced a vote on Ryan’s budget proposal that would have dramatically overhauled Medicare. A handful of Republicans, mostly from moderate swing states, joined the Democrats in rejecting the controversial proposal.

In 2017, Republicans forced a procedural vote on the Medicare-for-all proposal that has been embraced by the most liberal members of the House and presidential contenders such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

That’s when Schumer first adopted the vote-present strategy, as all Republicans and five Democrats from conservative-leaning states voted against the single-payer plan for insurance. The other 43 Democrats voted present.

Now, McConnell is running the game, with a new foil in Ocasio-Cortez. He has made clear he will continue the uphill effort to try to elevate her into a power equivalent to Pelosi, accusing Democrats of supporting a climate plan that comes from coastal elites.

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