Climate change takes center stage for Schumer

Climate change has long ranked as a lower priority for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer than issues like health care, financial services and immigration. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is vowing to keep a sharp focus on climate change, pressing what he views as one of the Democrats’ best advantages over Republicans in the 2020 election.

Schumer’s decision to devote his attention to climate change this year comes amid a wave a new activism from the party’s younger, greener supporters — and recent polling data showing climate change has risen from its back-burner status to become one of the top issues for Democratic voters overall.

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“Things have moved on climate more than almost any other issue in the last few years,” Schumer told POLITICO in an interview. “I am more optimistic than I’ve ever been, and I think going on offense will help us.”

It’s been a balancing act on occasion. Schumer parried Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s move to hold a vote on the Green New Deal resolution by leading his party to vote “present” en masse, a tactic that may have helped Democrats defuse Republican accusations they supported the plan conservatives had labeled a “socialist fantasy.”

While Schumer’s move to blunt the impact of the vote was supported by progressive groups, they’re anxious to see him back ambitious action in bills moving through Congress this year.

“We’re glad he’s given climate change more of the attention it deserves, but the fact of the matter is that real leadership on climate change is backing and passing the Green New Deal,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, the progressive group that helped design the proposal and is a close ally of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “Over the coming months, he needs to make true on his promise that any infrastructure plan include real climate policy.”

Schumer insists his support for aggressively tackling climate change is genuine, and he said he told President Donald Trump at an April 30 White House meeting that any federal infrastructure plan must be “pro-climate,” with investments in electric vehicles, energy efficiency and a modernized electric grid to aid the transmission of renewables like wind and solar.

In addition to that, Schumer said he’d press for climate change components to any tax bills or spending plans this year, a strategy he thinks could help Democratic efforts to win back the Senate and White House in 2020.

“This should be one of the most important issues in any election given the urgency, and we help highlight that,” he said.

Schumer said he would insist on the inclusion of battery storage, electric vehicle and additional wind and solar tax incentives as part of any tax extenders package. Along with the Democratic-led House, Democratic senators will also push for environmentally friendly provisions in the annual appropriations cycle, like funding for cleaner buses and efficient building incentives, he said. And Democrats will push for resiliency and clean energy provisions as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“In the past, all we could do is knock out the bad things,” he said. “But now we have a chance to do some good things.”

While Schumer’s been a consistent backer of environmental protections throughout his career, climate change has long ranked as a lower priority than issues like health care, financial services and immigration. But a poll by CNN released at the end April found climate change had risen to become the top issue for registered Democratic voters around the country. Results from a March CNN-Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters found 80 percent of Democrats wanted presidential candidates to make it a top priority, second only to health care as an issue of major concern.

It’s that type of support that has raised the profile of the Green New Deal and convinced six of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls to at least verbally support the resolution. Still, those candidates — Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — all followed Schumer’s strategy to vote “present” when McConnell put it to a vote in the Senate.

During the floor debate over the resolution, Schumer assembled a group of Democratic senators for the unusual tactic of repeatedly interrupting GOP senators and urging them to put forward their own solutions to climate change. He verbally jousted with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), interrupting his speech and admonishing him that “we’ve not heard anything from the other side about what they’re for with climate.”

The tactic was praised by green groups, though they are pushing Schumer for more.

“Schumer recognizes that progressive action to slow climate change is a winning issue, but we need to see action, not just rhetoric,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “Schumer calling out Mitch McConnell on climate change is good, but it simply is not enough. As progressive activists ramp up action on the Green New Deal, we expect to see real climate leadership from Schumer going forward.”

For their part, Republicans don’t think increased focus on climate change is going to pay political dividends for Schumer and Democrats.

“Democratic presidential candidates were quick to embrace Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s job-killing Green New Deal and it has now complicated matters for Senate Democrats,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It moved the conversation to a place where Democrats have to defend socialist policies in states where those ideas are extremely unpopular.”

Senate Democrats are hoping to develop an ambitious climate change proposal to be ready for speedy action following the 2020 election and will look to a new ad-hoc climate committee, formed by Schumer, to develop some of those ideas that could then be written into legislation. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), that panel’s chairman, said it would begin by holding internal meetings with labor groups, business CEOs and youth advocates ahead of public hearings in July.

“We want to start with labor because we need to demonstrate to our friends in labor that we understand that climate action has to be good for working people and for organized labor, in particular,” Schatz told POLITICO. “There’s a way to do this that can work for everybody but it starts with showing them the proper respect.”

Schumer’s pushed for years behind the scenes to keep deregulatory environmental riders out of spending bills, and some environmental groups are anxious to see him keep the spotlight on the issue.

“I think Senator Schumer like all of us saw that the 2018 elections made clear that embracing climate action is both good policy and good politics,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “I think he has really upped his game and we’re delighted by that.”

Schumer says his focus on climate change isn’t simply a political calculation. It’s been fed by the “visceral, profound” damage from Hurricane Sandy he saw while visiting Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island following the 2012 storm and the birth of his first grandson, Noah, last fall that he says drove home the human side of unchecked climate change. While riding his bike along the south shores of Brooklyn three weeks after his grandson’s birth — “one of my happiest rides” — Schumer said he wondered if Noah would be able to share the same experience given the rising seas.

“It really hit home on the generational issue,” he said.