The Caucus to Save the World

With Obama's plan blocked, two Florida legislators are trying to turn the tide on Capitol Hill.

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Two south Florida congressmen last week created a new House task force on climate change that seeks to propose clean energy legislation in the next two months. And despite strong headwinds, the bill may not be dead on arrival.

QuickTake Climate Change

The new Climate Solutions Caucus differs from most other House groups in that its co-founders, Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ted Deutch, are from different parties. And they want to keep it bipartisan, with an even number of Rs and Ds. It's probably not a coincidence that Curbelo, a Republican from Florida's 26th congressional district, and Deutch, a Democrat from the 21st district, represent people witnessing climate change in its starkest terms: Their communities, in Miami and surrounding counties, are slowly slipping into the sea.

The formation of the new group, while a baby step in a deeply polarized Congress, may be the beginning of the most serious attempt in seven years to build bipartisan support for climate policy in the House, which Republicans have controlled since 2011. And with the Supreme Court's decision this week to freeze President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, the likelihood Congress will have the final say in this arena seems ever more certain.

"There shouldn’t be this false orthodoxy, where if you’re a Democrat you want to solve this problem and if you’re a Republican you want to ignore it," Curbelo said. "That just makes no sense."

Republican presidential candidates continue to struggle with the topic, caught between a shifting party line and the fact that humans—those in richer countries in particular—are the dominant cause of global warming. Throw in the recent 195-nation climate agreement reached in Paris, and the result is a Republican stance on climate policies that mirrors those of North Korea, Syria, and Nicaragua. Unlike those three countries, however, the U.S. is a major emitter of climate-altering gases—the second biggest, after China.

Republican lawmakers unmoved by the climate problem itself were given a new reason to act with Obama's attempt at a workaround, designed to cut emissions from electricity generation. Such increased regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency is viewed in some conservative circles as more offensive than a national carbon tax. "I really want to find an alternative to the EPA," Curbelo said, without singling anything out in particular.

And while the Supreme Court's stay of Obama's plan (pending resolution, likely next year, of a lawsuit by 26 states) may make Republicans less eager to exchange a carbon tax for the EPA regime, climate change isn't going away. 

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Membership in the new climate caucus is likely to remain limited until the its goals are better defined. For his part, Deutch said he has no preconceptions as to what it may propose, seeing it instead as a forum where business and community leaders, academics, and others can address legislators, and topics can range from shoreline and city protection to carbon regulation. A key point of the new caucus is to move past the congressional stalemate that led to Obama's regulations to begin with.

Curbelo said he would like to see the group gain additional members and produce some kind of blueprint for a clean energy bill relatively soon.

"We need a bill to build some more consensus," he said. "I think within a month or six weeks, there will be, if not a bill, certainly the outline of a bill that will represent the first step."

Several Republican House members have expressed interest in joining, Deutch said. The Democrat wouldn't name names yet, but reasonable guesses may include lawmakers who signed a Republican-only House resolution in September vowing "to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates." Eleven Republicans signed, including two representatives—Chris Gibson, who sponsored the measure, and Richard Hanna of New York—who happen to be retiring after this term. Curbelo signed, and said he hopes "some if not all" of the others will join the new caucus.  

A first-term congressman, Curbelo says he likes to bring some humor to the topic when it comes up with members of his party. Jokes defuse tension while making his point, he explains. If a fellow member disputes that climate change is a problem, Curbelo warns that, when Miami is no longer inhabitable, he's going to move to their district and run against him.

"I want to call this place home for the rest of my life," he says of Miami, "and I’m sure my daughters do. It’s incumbent on us to do everything we can."

The caucus took Deutch more than two years to develop, working in part with outside groups such as the Citizens Climate Lobby. Curbelo signed on to the caucus over the past several weeks, he said.

Congressional caucuses in some ways are the after-school programs of lawmaking. Many topics coincide with legislative business, but there are others on topics as varied as electromagnetic pulses, chickens, and colitis. The current Congress even has a Maker Caucus, which focuses in part on 3D printing. 

And there is already one climate group in the House. Representative Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat, took over the Congressional Safe Climate Caucus when fellow Democrat Henry Waxman retired in 2014. Waxman successfully shepherded a massive climate bill through the House in 2009; it died in the Senate. Lowenthal said that a small, balanced group could be the best approach at this point. His group is made up of 50 Democrats and zero Republicans, a membership unlikely to attract conservatives.

A new group may not seem like a big deal, but any movement in the climate debate is a novelty these days. And it does represent real progress: Jay Butera, senior congressional liaison of Citizens' Climate Lobby, has championed the idea of a caucus since the summer of 2013. "In the early phases, it was unthinkable for us to use the word 'climate' in the caucus name," he said. That there's now a Climate Solutions Caucus, he said, "speaks volumes as to how far we have come in moving the conversation forward on the Hill."