A centrist and a skeptic of man-made global warming are jockeying for the top Republican spot on a new climate change committee that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., created.
Reps. Francis Rooney of Florida, a climate change hawk, and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a longtime skeptic, are openly campaigning to be ranking member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which Democrats created to elevate the issue ahead of the 2020 election.
The appointment will be made by House GOP leadership, which now faces a choice between trying to shape Democratic-led climate policy and trying to stop it.
"It might be interpreted as a less than positive thing if someone who is made ranking member doesn't really care about climate change," Rooney told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
Rooney added that he has told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., that he wants to serve on the climate committee, but he is doubtful he will be chosen because "I vote more like a Democrat than [a Republican] as far as being pro-environment."
Sensenbrenner, a veteran lawmaker in his 21st term whom Rooney praised, would have the major advantage of seniority in vying for the selection. He would undoubtedly take a more adversarial approach to the Democrat-controlled committee.
He was ranking member of a previous iteration of the climate committee created by House Democrats in 2007 and later disbanded by Republicans after they took control of the chamber in January 2011.
"People might call me a climate change denier — my position on climate change is yes, I do believe there is human impact on climate change, but there is no consensus whatsoever on how much impact there is," Sensenbrenner told the Washington Examiner.
He said he wants to bring a “free market” perspective to the committee, emphasizing innovation and opposing government policies such as carbon pricing that climate experts favor to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
“I am interested in selling the American people that market-based solutions work rather than all kinds of bureaucratic taxes or regulations that haven't worked in Europe, wouldn't work here, and would be extremely unpopular with voters,” Sensenbrenner said in an interview. “We won’t win the House back if the Republican position is Green Revolution-light.”
Republican advocates for government policy to combat climate change are pushing for GOP leaders to select Rooney, a Republican first elected in 2016 whose southwest Florida district is vulnerable to sea level rise.
“This is an incredible opportunity for Republicans to reset on climate change and step forward with free enterprise solutions and engage constructively,” Bob Inglis, a former six-term congressman from South Carolina, and founder of republicEn.org, told the Washington Examiner. “We are going to enter the competition of ideas. We are going to stop picking up the game ball and running into the parking lot with it."
Rooney is a leader of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus who has co-sponsored multiple carbon tax bills. He is likely soon to be named co-chairman of that caucus, which is not a committee but an informal group of Democratic and Republican House lawmakers, in equal numbers, who commit to supporting policies to combat climate change.
“We hope to see Republicans who are already leading on climate issues, such as those backing carbon pricing legislation or others who are in the Climate Solutions Caucus, chosen to join the committee,” Mark Reynolds, executive director of Citizens Climate Lobby, told the Washington Examiner.
Rooney said he would aim to work cooperatively with Democrats on the committee, who face pressures of their own from freshman progressives, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who want to build momentum for a “Green New Deal” that would transition the U.S. economy to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years.
A fossil fuel-free future within a decade is "a little bit unrealistic," Rooney said. But he said he would seek "constructive engagement" with Democrats on efforts such as pushing for a carbon "tax and dividend" arrangement that would return the proceeds of carbon taxes to American households to compensate for higher energy prices.
"A carbon tax is the least intrusive, most free-market means to address climate change and move the market to cleaner fuels," Rooney said.
Sensenbrenner said he opposes any form of carbon pricing because it would "disproportionately hurt poor people."
In reviving the committee, Democratic leaders hope "to investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies, and innovations to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis."
But the panel will have to include Republicans.
According to the House rules package establishing the committee, McCarthy, the minority leader, is responsible for recommending six of the 15 members, including a ranking member. He could choose someone other than Sensenbrenner and Rooney for the top Republican spot, though those two are most actively gunning for the role.
Pelosi has already selected a centrist Democrat, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, to lead the committee and has put limitations on its power, moves that bothered freshman progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez.
The new climate change committee has a more urgent name than the old one: the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
But like the previous iteration, called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the new panel can only make policy recommendations, not write bills.
The committee also does not ban membership of lawmakers who receive donations from fossil fuel interests, and it won’t have subpoena power — shortcomings that House progressives have said make the panel “toothless."
Climate hawks, however, say the committee was valuable the last go-around, conducting hearings on the threat of climate change, conducting oversight of the George W. Bush administration’s energy policies, and offering solutions. That work paved the way for the 2009 cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The new committee could operate similarly, although climate advocates see the need for action as more urgent now, with the passage of time and U.S. carbon emissions rising in 2018 after years of declines.
"It's important we show that at least some Republicans do feel the climate is changing, recognize we are at risk of sea level rise, and are willing to work with whoever it takes to deal with it," Rooney said.