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Climate politics: The view from Washington

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 8 min read

Legislation is not enacted in a vacuum. Successful advocacy strategies begin with understanding the political context in which proposed climate-related policies are to be debated and acted upon.

Squabble, squabble.

Congress is back from its Easter break, and things are as messed up as they left it. As has been the case over the past months, the chaos in the House continues to negatively impact Congress' ability to respond to the critical issues of the day, including how to handle funding for Ukraine, Israel, and humanitarian aid for Gaza, and whether building new LNG export facilities in the US will be part of the deal. 

Speaker Johnson's life has been made more uncomfortable by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene's (R-GA) filing a motion to vacate the chair. She's accusing Johnson of conspiring with Democrats to pass the 2024 appropriation bills. Greene's gripes are the same as when Matt Gaetz (R-FL) moved to oust McCarthy. The motion has been filed, but Greene has not asked for a vote. She's allowing it to hang over Johnson like a Damoclean sword.

The far-right House Freedom Caucus and other Trump (MAGA) aligned members of Congress are angry because Johnson isn't holding the line on the America First agenda, which doesn't include any continued support for Ukraine's war with Russia.

Two and possibly three legislative issues will dominate the congressional agenda for the next two or three weeks. And time is something of the essence in both. In addition to the supplemental aid bill is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and federal funds to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland.

The foreign aid bill may have implications for US natural gas, which I'll explain more briefly. FISA "allows US intelligence agencies to intercept communications involving suspected foreign agents and terrorists without a warrant, including any conversations they may have with American nationals."

Former President Trump is demanding that Republicans let the authority lapse. He claims his campaigns were spied on using the authority of the act. Although the act's powers have been abused, there's no evidence to support Trump's claim.

Johnson’s first attempt to extend the authority for warrantless surveillance provisions was defeated by right-wing Republicans voting with the Democrats. Democratic opposition to the bill was because it included an “unrelated resolution condemning President Biden’s border policies.” It seems that the far-right folks in the House don’t have a problem voting with the Democrats when it’s to kill Republican proposals. (Just an observation.) Expect this to be a repeated pattern on other legislation.

The issue on the Key Bridge is a question of money. What isn’t these days? Some MAGA-aligned members are questioning why the federal government should contribute to the reconstruction—claiming it's the problem of the city and state. The bridge is a critical link of the eastern seaboard highway system. (For more on the bridge issue, see here.)

It could prove tricky when it comes to voting against federal help. It's the Key Bridge now, but what happens if some natural or terrorist disaster occurs in a Republican district? We'll see which Republicans believe in the Golden Rule of law as events unfold.

Will new LNG facilities be a part of the foreign aid supplemental?

The foreign aid bill drama is ongoing. The Senate passed—in a bipartisan manner a clean supplemental for a total of $95 billion. It included funding for Ukraine, whose war effort is seriously hampered by Congress' failure to approve additional funding for its defense.

It's complicated. Republicans continue to support Israel, while the Democrats are more divided. Biden is getting pressured by members of Congress, his own administration, and voters to take a hard line on Netanyahu's refusal to allow humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza during a declared ceasefire.

The deadly attack on humanitarian aid workers from the nonprofit World Central Kitchens seems to be a catalyst for politicians particularly in the US and the UK to up their pressure on Israel. David Cameron, Britain’s top diplomat, was in the US to encourage a rapid passage for Ukrainian aid and probably to suggest that both countries hold back weapons shipments from Israel until the humanitarian crisis is meaningfully addressed. Senator Sanders (I-VT) has introduced legislation to that effect.

Although Cameron met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Secretary of State Blinken, Senate Minority Leader McConnell and others in Congress, Speaker Johnson said he was too busy to meet with the Brit. Is it a tell of things to come, or did the speaker simply not want to give the ultras something else to add to their indictments?

Speaker Johnson has said he supports aid to Ukraine but wants something in return. He wants President Biden to lift his objection to new natural gas export terminals. According to POLITICO: "Republicans could claim they'd extracted a concession that undercuts Biden's climate agenda, the thinking goes, it would deliver them a rare unifying message heading into the election."

Johnson is going to have a tough time selling that idea. Biden's pausing approvals on new projects is an essential element of his climate policies. A retraction of the pause would significantly weaken his support within the climate and clean energy communities—especially youthful voters.  

New LNG facilities are unlikely to sway hard-right House members, who appear unalterably opposed to continued aid to Ukraine. It's not to say that Johnson can't convince them or somehow sweeten the deal. The speaker also suggests that assistance to Ukraine could be in the form of a loan—much like Roosevelt's structured support for England and Europe in WWII.

Another possibility would be that border security and immigration provisions would be added to the foreign aid supplemental. The Senate bill gave the GOP much of what they wanted. The bill also had Biden's support.

The complication here is that Trump opposed the bill mainly because he didn't want to give Biden credit in an election year—actually ever—for new border security laws. Once he made his position known, House and Senate Republicans followed suit. So, it's unclear what Johnson might be able to add that doesn't get pushback by the former president.

Johnson and a fair number of moderate and establishment House Republicans seem committed to foreign aid. The speaker is going to have to rely on the Democrats to pass a bill, which is going to trigger (more) pushback by Greene and the other MAGA-aligned Republicans. It may be enough for Greene to ask for a vote on her motion to vacate. (More on this in a moment.)

Will the Democrats sweeten the foreign aid bill in some way to allow Johnson to claim credibly that some of the conservative agenda has been added? Maybe, but whatever it is, it must also be acceptable to the Senate and the White House.  

To his credit, Johnson has moderated some of his far-right positions in favor of getting something done. Former Republican House Speakers McCarthy, McCarthy, Ryan, and Boehner all suffered the same malady. It seems something about being the Speaker of the US House of Representatives causes collaboration. Must be the water.

Johnson has explained that the America First agenda can't be done all in one step. Smaller steps will get us there, is his mantra. I'm guessing there's no satisfying the fifty or so hard-liners or Mr. Trump.

Greene and other MAGA-aligned House members have enough clout to jam things up in the rules committee. However, it's possible to bring a bill to the House floor for a vote using a discharge petition. The petition needs to be signed by a majority of the House—which is a bit fluid these days.

The Republican majority is about to be a single vote—down from the five it started with at the beginning of the 118th Congress. The reason for the narrowing is early retirements by Republican House members, who are frustrated by the chaos. At full strength, there are 435 members of the House, of which 218 is the majority. With the early retirements the partisan breakdown is 217Rs to 213Ds, with a new majority of 216 votes when all members are present and voting.

It's not just the moderates like Mike Gallagher (R-WI) who are sending a message. The very conservative Ken Buck (R-CO) opposed the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas because he had done what the president asked him to do, which is his job.

Ultimately, I'm guessing a foreign aid bill will be enacted, possibly with something that allows Johnson to point to as a conservative accomplishment. It's hard to overstate the urgency of Ukraine's need for additional support. They're said to be running out of artillery shells.

Many Republicans are nervous about Greene's having filed her motion to vacate. Although it's much less likely that another speaker will be sent packing before the November elections, another ousting debate will continue the chaos in the lower chamber. There are concerns that the turmoil will lead to the GOP losing the House in November.

Johnson seems unconcerned about the possibility of being vacated. There are rumors afoot that he's discontented with all the bickering and doesn't care much either for the travel, fundraising, and phone work that comes with the job.

If things weren’t already weird enough, Johnson “told Fox News there is a slim chance he could lose the speakership to Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries in the next few weeks amid a wave of early retirements.”

In any event, until FISA, foreign aid, and the Key Bridge are settled not much else will get done on Capitol Hill.  

The Biden administration is doing a lot to implement as much of Biden’s climate agenda as possible. Look for future Views to cover what’s going on at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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