Pressed by Climate Activists, Senate Democrats to ‘Go on Offense’


WASHINGTON — Facing a showdown vote as early as this month over the embattled “Green New Deal,” Senate Democrats are preparing a counteroffensive to make combating climate change a central issue of their 2020 campaigns — a striking shift on an issue they have shied away from for the past decade.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, outlined the new strategy in an interview last week, casting it as a way to mobilize millennial voters, a key part of the Democratic constituency that the party will need to turn out to win in swing states.

With progressives pushing Democrats to embrace the Green New Deal — and Republicans ridiculing the idea as socialism — Mr. Schumer is effectively trying to turn a weakness into a strength. He is planning daily floor speeches attacking Republicans for inaction and a proposal for a special Senate committee focused on the issue, which he intends to announce this week.

And while there is virtually no chance of passing climate change legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate with President Trump in office, Mr. Schumer said he wanted legislation to run on next year — and bring to a vote in early 2021, should his party win the White House and the Senate.

“This is the first time Democrats have decided to go on offense on climate change,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview in his office. Asked about a bill, though, he conceded that “it’s going to take us a little while to come up with a consensus that works.”

But even one of the most ardent evangelists for climate action, former Vice President Al Gore, conceded that it could be difficult for the party to come together around actual legislation. “This is a heavy lift politically,” he said.

Despite that, Democrats see fighting climate change as a winning issue on the campaign trail — a way to mobilize not only young voters but also progressives, who are increasingly talking about the environment in terms of economic and social justice, given the outsize effect pollution has on minority communities.

Mr. Schumer said that he believed voters now saw climate change as an issue that affected them in their daily lives, as scientific reports link climate change to damaging extreme weather, such as stronger storms, flooding and drought.

He pointed to “the energy of the young people” on the issue and added, “We want to take that energy and channel it into something more constructive.”

Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist, said that if Democrats talked about the issue correctly — using phrases like “transitioning to green energy,” rather than the more polarizing “climate change” — they could win over Trump voters, who associate words like “transition” and “energy” with jobs.

“Trump’s weakest issue is the environment,” Ms. Lake said. “As a Democrat, you’re mobilizing our side, you’re cross-pressuring his voters and you’re talking about the economy and the environment at the same time.”

But Democrats are likely to run into trouble when it comes time to propose serious policy solutions. Already, supporters of the Green New Deal have been met with criticism that the proposal is chiefly a set of broad-strokes outlines, rather than concrete legislative language.

Other Democrats shied away, including Ms. Feinstein, who told the group of student protesters, “there’s no way to pay for it,” and “it wouldn’t pass the Senate.”

Mr. Schumer called the episode “a little hiccup, nothing more.”

Republicans saw an opportunity.

“Do our Democratic colleagues really support this fantasy novel masquerading as public policy?” Mr. McConnell asked last week on the Senate floor, discussing his plan for the coming vote. “Do they really want to completely upend Americans’ lives to enact some grand socialist vision?”

Mr. Schumer’s plan to protect Democrats from going on the record in support of the Green New Deal is to have all members of his caucus simply vote “present” when Mr. McConnell brings the proposal to the Senate floor.

Mr. Schumer said he would then counter with a more detailed policy solution, but that may prove just as risky. Such a solution to climate change is the same as it was in 2010, when Mr. Obama failed to pass a bill that required polluters to pay for their carbon emissions.

Policy experts say the solution to climate change is still to put a price — ideally, a tax — on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, essentially creating an energy tax that would raise the price of gasoline and electricity generated from fossil fuels. That idea is likely to remain a tough sell with many voters, even as it energizes the liberal left wing of the Democratic Party.

Veterans of the 2010 debacle say the political risk will not be as great as it was then.

“There has been a lot of change since then,” said Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman from a coal-rich quarter of southwest Virginia, whose constituents voted him out of office for backing the Obama-era climate change bill.

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