WASHINGTON (AFP, NYTIMES) - United States Senate Republican leaders forced a stunt vote on Tuesday (March 26) on a climate change measure they ridicule, seeking to corner Democratic presidential hopefuls over an expensive, economy-upending plan proposed by the party's liberal left wing.
The chamber easily rejected the Green New Deal, a proposal offered by progressive Democrats that would dramatically shift the US away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, in an ambitious effort to zero out greenhouse gas emissions within a decade.
It is less a hardened political policy than a blueprint of transformational action to combat the threat of climate change, and several Democrats running to challenge President Donald Trump next year have signed on to the non-binding plan.
Six Senate Democrats are 2020 White House candidates, and the chamber's Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to get them on record supporting what his party believes would be a multi-trillion-dollar boondoggle.
"I could not be more glad that the American people will have the opportunity to learn precisely where each one of their senators stand on the 'Green New Deal': a radical, top-down, socialist makeover of the entire US economy," Mr McConnell said.
The legislation introduced by Mr McConnell failed to advance, with zero votes in support, 57 opposed, and 43 Democrats - including all six presidential candidates - voting "present". Democrats accused the Senate's Republican leadership of quashing debate and blocking any public hearings on climate change.
"We need real action on climate change - not this kind of sham vote," 2020 contender Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.
"Climate change is a global crisis, not a political game," added Senator Elizabeth Warren, a liberal presidential candidate who supports the Green New Deal.
The plan does not detail how America will wean itself off of fossil fuels, or how much the ambitious transformation will cost.
Republicans are seeking to make climate change a wedge issue in the election.
Mr Trump himself mocked Democrats over the plan. "No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing that's the end of your electric," he told a laughing crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month.
The plan's champion is liberal first-term congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a favourite target of conservatives.
The hours of discussion that preceded the desultory procedural vote marked the most extensive examination of climate change on the Senate floor in years. The fight also took on larger dimensions as a proxy for the 2020 presidential battle, with Republicans charging that liberals intend to raise energy costs and devastate middle-class livelihoods, and Democrats blasting their counterparts for climate denial and inaction on an issue most Americans agree is serious.
McConnell dismissed the climate change action plan as a "science fiction novel".
Outside the Senate, environmental activists chanted, "What do we want? A Green New Deal. When do we want it? Now!" even as they clarified that they did not actually want the Senate to pass this particular Green New Deal resolution at this precise moment.
"To ordinary people, climate change is not politics. It's life and death," said Democratic Senator Ed Markey, a sponsor of the Senate version of the Green New Deal. Mr Markey accused Republicans of trying to "sabotage" efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and predicted that "they will pay a price at the ballot box in 2020". Still, the manoeuvring ultimately allowed both parties to declare political victory.
Democrats said they intend to move forward on a number of fronts. In the House, a senior Democratic leadership aide said lawmakers will introduce sweeping legislation this week to require the Trump administration to stay in the Paris Agreement on climate change and create a plan for meeting the US' commitment to the global climate deal.
In the Senate, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Mr Brian Schatz of Hawaii will announce a new special committee on climate change. Democrats are also expected to push to prioritise climate change in coming legislation on infrastructure and a deal to raise spending caps.
Environmental activists said they believe the Republican strategy to ridicule, campaign on and raise money off the Green New Deal backfired, with even Mr McConnell acknowledging at a news conference on Tuesday that climate change is real and caused by human activity.
"Mitch McConnell bet big that today's vote would fracture the Democratic caucus," said Ms Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement for climate action. "Today he bet wrong," she added.
Republicans, meanwhile, boasted that they had exposed a plan so extreme that even Democrats shied away from it.
"Democrats are trying to duck, dodge and distance themselves from a vote on their own Green New Deal," Republican Senator John Barrasso said. "Every Democrat senator running for president supported it. Now when given the chance to actually go on the record, Democrats are desperate to avoid it."
All six presidential candidates in the Senate - Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts - had been sponsors of the Green New Deal.