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Move over, Ocasio-Cortez. The Green New Deal's got some competition.

With no shortage of ideas in Congress about how to address climate change, Democrats are likely to clash over where to go from here.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., hold a news conference this month on their Green New Deal environmental proposal.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Green New Deal has always been a plan to make a plan.

It sets an ambitious goal to move the economy toward net-zero emissions by 2030, but as supporters in Congress eagerly work to build out those plans into real legislation, they're going to face stiff competition from politicians, activists and think tanks working on their own proposals from a different set of assumptions.

Even among backers of the nonbinding resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., its broad strokes could sow disputes about what the Green New Deal means in practice. Ocasio-Cortez herself described the resolution as a "request for proposals" designed to elicit legislation from multiple lawmakers.

"This is the first chapter of the book," said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. "Where you start out on these proposals is not where you end up."

Potential for conflict

One area where the Green New Deal activists could clash with other environmental groups, lawmakers and other officials are their demands for a suite of "economic justice" policies, which include items like single-payer health care, along with guaranteed jobs and housing.

The Green New Deal resolution mentions these issues in passing, but there's no party consensus around them and health care is already shaping up as a defining debate in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

"My own view is these energy investments and clean energy investments are going to be considered separately when they get to real legislation," John Podesta, founder and director of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning advocacy group, told NBC News.

This could lead to confusion down the line. While many Democrats see the Green New Deal economic proposals as general goals, backers on the left see them as a critical component that they say will aid workers affected by the transition away from fossil fuels.

"It isn't a section of the Green New Deal, it is the Green New Deal," said Demond Drummer, executive director of New Consensus, a nonprofit that's advised Ocasio-Cortez and is crafting proposals within the Green New Deal framework that could serve as a basis for legislation.

Many players, many plans

For Ocasio-Cortez and the activists who put the Green New Deal on the top of Democrats' agenda, the race is on to define the maximalist approach and hold lawmakers to it.

Drummer said that the group's plan is to produce regular policy proposals through 2019, with a goal of assembling a collection that lines up with all of the Green New Deal's goals by January 2020.

"It’s not like there's going to be this magnum opus that's released in 2020," he said. "There are some things ready to go now and some things that need to be worked on and revised."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is working on a "comprehensive" climate proposal that "builds on the (Green New Deal) resolution that was introduced and fleshes out a lot of those details," communications director Josh Miller-Lewis said.

On the activist front, the Sunrise Movement is planning a national tour to promote the Green New Deal. They'll also keep watch over the politicians working on related proposals, which includes the announced and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, several of whom are co-sponsors of the resolution and are also likely to roll out their own climate plans on the campaign trail. In particular, they hope to maintain the plan's strict 10-year path toward a clean economy, a goal some allies see as unrealistic.

"If proposals don't close in on a timeline to get to net-zero emissions in the time the science demands, they're not the Green New Deal," said Stephen O’Hanlon, communications director for Sunrise Movement.

Uncertain allies

Democratic leaders have generally praised the Green New Deal's ambition, but they're staying neutral on where their congressional members go next on climate legislation.

The resolution has 68 co-sponsors in the House and 11 in the Senate, still well short of a majority of Democrats in either chamber.

"My view is that when there are issues subject to robust debate within the many members of the House Democratic caucus, that it's best that I don't weigh in until I have an opportunity to evaluate the particular legislative proposals and have a discussion with all of the interested parties," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a member of the House leadership team, told reporters last week.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., created a new Select Committee on climate change, but resisted Ocasio-Cortez's demands to task it with producing a plan for achieving the Green New Deal's goals. The committee's chairwoman, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., has said only that the panel will operate "in the spirit of the Green New Deal."

That leaves it to individual lawmakers and committees to take the lead and Green New Deal advocates may have some allies. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chair of the powerful Rules Committee, is a co-sponsor of Ocasio-Cortez's resolution, as is Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. His committee could potentially incorporate elements of the Green New Deal into legislation.

"I think you'll see a different kind of infrastructure bill than you saw in the past," Podesta said. "There will be more emphasis and reliance on clean energy, more electrification of the transportation sector, more investment in energy efficient buildings."

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a prominent policy voice in the progressive caucus, said he expected to see "lots of creative initiatives" under the Green New Deal banner, rather than one major bill. He's working on legislation designed to boost tax credits for electric cars, an issue he's pursued in prior legislative sessions.

However, the chair of Energy and Commerce, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., is not a resolution co-sponsor and has sounded some skeptical notes on Ocasio-Cortez's approach.

In the Senate, Republicans are in control, making movement on major legislation unlikely. But key Democrats are also less warm to the Green New Deal, most notably coal-friendly Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Rival approaches

There's a fundamental legislative debate shaping up over how to tax pollution, an area where the Green New Deal may represent a more drastic break from prior Democratic plans.

For decades, Democrats across the ideological spectrum have sought to put a price on carbon emissions in order to encourage companies and consumers to adopt more energy-efficient practices.

Markey, the Green New Deal resolution co-sponsor, led a failed 2009 effort to enact cap-and-trade legislation that would set a total limit on pollution and then allow companies to buy and sell emissions allowances between them. It passed the House, but was never voted on in the Senate.

The Green New Deal resolution stays quiet on the topic of carbon taxes, but supporters have often framed their proposal as a rival framework to that approach.

Ocasio-Cortez has said cap-and-trade or carbon taxes could be part of an overall solution, but are "inadequate as the whole answer." A coalition of environmental groups backing the Green New Deal are explicitly against the concept, with critics on the left arguing carbon taxes will raise prices for consumers and spark a political backlash. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is weighing a Democratic presidential run, unsuccessfully tried to pass a carbon tax in his state last year and has since urged national Democrats to consider other approaches.

But many economists and environmental groups still back putting a price on emissions and some Democrats see it as an easier bridge to bipartisan support. Versions of a carbon tax enjoy backing from at least some Republicans and major corporations, including oil companies like ExxonMobil and BP, which see it as a way to avoid more intrusive government intervention.

In the House, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., and a group of moderate Democrats to impose a $15-per-ton fee on carbon that rises over time and then pay out the collected revenue to Americans as a dividend.

"We have to create a disincentive," Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who has not signed onto the Green New Deal, told NBC News. "I favor a carbon fee and dividend, returning the dollars generated right back to taxpayers."

Another carbon fee bill sponsored by a more progressive coalition of Democrats, Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, would start the price at $50-per-ton.

Schatz, who is considered an influential policy figure among progressives, has showered praise on the Green New Deal, but did not sign onto the resolution and has said he is working on his own proposals.

For now, the first legislative action on the Green New Deal will come from the Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is planning a vote on the resolution in an apparent bid to highlight divisions among Democrats, including the 2020 candidates, and lay the groundwork for future GOP attacks.

Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called McConnell's move a "political stunt" in a speech on the Senate floor and challenged Republicans to release their own climate bills. Schumer has not signed onto the Green New Deal, however.

CORRECTION (Feb. 17, 9:30 a.m. ET): A previous headline on this article misspelled the last name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, not Oscasio-Cortez.