McConnell’s opposition to Green New Deal comes as he backs not-so-green resource: coal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to put Democratic presidential candidates in an uncomfortable position by forcing them to vote on the controversial Green New Deal being pitched by rising Democratic star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But he also wants to promote his own long-held support for not-so-green measures.

The Kentucky Republican routinely accused former President Barack Obama of waging a “war on coal” for imposing clean air standards on aging power plants.

And earlier this week, McConnell urged the Tennessee Valley Authority to keep open a coal-fired Kentucky power plant that the utility deemed unreliable and too expensive to repair.

“Kentuckians strongly oppose moving away from coal,” McConnell said in a video address to the utility that rejected his pitch Thursday, saying it wasn’t economically feasible to keep operating the final burner at the Paradise plant in Muhlenberg County.

“Coal has helped fuel our country’s greatness and it needs to be part of our energy future,” McConnell said.

The Green New Deal is a sweeping congressional resolution with few details but ambitious goals that aim to combat the effects of climate change. While it doesn’t mention coal, or oil and gas, it calls for meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the U.S. “through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” It also calls for zero-emission vehicles and manufacturing.

While Kentucky is the third-leading state for coal production, the state has lost coal jobs in recent years, in part because the state doesn’t have as much metallurgical coal, used in steel making, as neighboring West Virginia. The number of jobs in Kentucky dropped to a record low of just over to 6,400 in 2018.

The loss of jobs, along with coal’s history in the state, leaves many lawmakers wary of what they see as overly aggressive efforts to combat climate change. They’re eager to shield the coal industry from further decline and to aid miners and their families.

In the Senate, McConnell has derided “show votes” that won’t clear the chamber, but this week he sped up the process to get the Democrats’ climate change measure to a vote, invoking the Senate rule that allows legislation to be brought directly to the Senate floor without committee consideration.

“I’ve noted with great interest the Green New Deal,” McConnell told reporters. “We’ll give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal.”

Democrats howled, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York accusing McConnell of a “cheap, cynical ploy.”

Republicans have barely contained their glee about a proposal the Republican National Committee calls a “long socialist wish-list.” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, whose state, like Kentucky, is a major coal producer, called it a “raw deal for the American public” forged by a Democratic party that he said has taken a “very hard left turn.”

Barrasso warned the legislation would raise taxes and force people in the energy industry out of work and suggested it’s already been “rubber stamped” by the Democratic presidential candidates. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey have expressed support for the measure.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said she would vote for what she called an aspirational idea, but warned the details will matter in the finished product.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is considering running for president, has not endorsed the measure. And Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, a member of Senate Democratic leadership, voiced reservations with the proposal.

“I support the goals as it relates to climate change,” she said Thursday at an Axios event. But she said that some of the resolution’s language is troubling, “because it leaves things wide open and allows folks that are opposing it to … mischaracterize it.”

Because the bill offers a sweeping outline to reduce the use of oil and gas without concrete details, voting for the matter could open up Democrats to charges that they support measures like banning air travel, as Republicans have threatened. And it could further the divisions between Democrats from more conservative states that Trump won and progressive Democratic activists who have embraced the proposal.

Democrats accused McConnell of “trolling” them by putting the measure up for a vote later this month, but several suggested having Republicans mock the resolution could backfire among voters already feeling the effects of climate change.

Schumer noted that since Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015, they’ve not brought a single Republican bill to reduce carbon emissions to the floor.

“The American people need to see that this is all there is to the Republican plan to deal with climate change,” Schumer said. “This is all they can muster. A political stunt. Not designed to make progress. Not designed to move the ball forward.

“They’re bringing a resolution forward so they can vote against it. This cheap, cynical ploy evidently represents the sum total of Senate Republicans’ leadership on the vital issue of climate change — an issue that cries out for serious engagement by members of both parties.”

The Green New Deal measure’s original Senate sponsor, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, accused Republicans of wanting to stifle the science of climate change by bypassing public hearings. He charged that Republicans are leery of “clean energy solutions that threaten their fossil fuel backers.”

He was not surprised at McConnell’s latest ploy, noting McConnell had fought Markey’s 2009 bill aimed at shifting the U.S. to cleaner sources of energy and reducing the heat-trapping gases building up in the atmosphere. That bill cleared the House but died in the then-Democratic led Senate.

Markey said the public debate over the Green New Deal proposal, which he and Ocasio-Cortez unveiled a week ago, has boosted its profile.

“In one week we’ve already done a lot of political education about this issue,” Markey said in an interview. “It’s the first debate in 10 years on the issue and it’s exploding and what they’re trying to do is defuse it by cynically acting in a way that they don’t put up their own proposal, they seek to undermine ours.”

McConnell routinely criticized the Obama administration for its clean air policies. He and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, were among the signatories to a 2017 letter to Trump applauding his efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations, including the 2015 Clean Power Plan designed to cut planet-warming emissions from the nation’s power plants.

The attempt to force lawmakers into taking uncomfortable votes has been tried before.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, in 2017 sought to make senators vote on a “Medicare for All,” a single-payer health care plan, as part of a debate over repealing the Affordable Care Act. But many senators who support single-payer voted “present” and red-state Democrats voted “no.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.