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No red lines, just green lines: Ed Markey takes key role in Senate climate fight

Senator Ed Markey urged the inclusion of the Civilian Climate Corps in the budget reconciliation bill.Kevin Dietsch/Getty

WASHINGTON — With the climate crisis looming, Ed Markey devised a plan to tackle it with sweeping legislation that would have established new energy standards, cut carbon emissions, and seeded a greener economy.

That was 2009, and the bill he pushed through the House as a congressman went on to wither on the vine in the Senate.

Markey has since moved up to the Senate, where more than a decade later and with the climate threat graver than ever, the Massachusetts Democrat is seizing his best opportunity yet to get global warming provisions passed, maneuvering them into the infrastructure package slogging its way through a divided Congress.


For Markey, the effort has the added stakes of being a must-win for the young climate activists who helped get him reelected last year in a tough primary against former representative Joseph Kennedy III.

“This bill has the Green New Deal principles at its core,” Markey said in an interview this week, rattling off the climate measures that he is confident the package will include. There is a requirement that power companies produce more clean energy, a special bank to finance climate-friendly energy projects, and a “Civilian Climate Corps” that would employ 1.5 million young people to tackle global warming and is a key demand of the youth climate movement.

These are still short of the $10 trillion Markey and those groups ideally want to spend tackling climate change, but passing them into law would still take a herculean effort given Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate. Markey has played a key role, fashioning a deal that young advocates such as the Sunrise Movement and powerful insiders such as centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin can live with. He also is dedicated to ensuring his party doesn’t blow another chance to tackle a problem that has only become more urgent since 2009.


“Young people in America have a big I.O.U. that they have a right to call in in 2021 on the climate issue,” Markey said, “and I share their high expectations for what will come out of this legislative process.”

President Biden’s infrastructure package, a major priority for his administration, is likely to be made up of two bills. One would spend nearly $600 billion on traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges and has bipartisan support. It failed a procedural vote in the Senate on Wednesday, but is still being negotiated.

The second is much more ambitious and far-reaching. It would put an additional $3.5 trillion toward Democratic priorities of child care, health care, and climate, but will likely require Democrats to advance it without any Republican support through a parliamentary procedure called budget reconciliation.

Markey has led a core bloc of senators behind a battle cry of “no climate, no deal,” although they have kept their demands relatively vague, likely in order to not alienate Manchin, who represents West Virginia, where support for fossil fuels and coal in particular runs high.

“Instead of drawing red lines in these negotiations, I’m working for green lines that can, you know, solve problems,” Markey said, creatively dodging repeated questions about what it would take for him to vote the package down.

He met with Manchin earlier this year, according to a source on Capitol Hill, and has spoken with White House officials, including chief of staff Ron Klain, counselor Steve Richetti, national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. He also talked about the climate provisions directly with Biden, once during a ceremony for Juneteenth and again last week when the president lunched with the Senate Democratic caucus, the person said.


Markey and his staff are also in constant contact with climate activists, including Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement. In the interview, Markey said he considers himself their representative in Senate negotiations.

“There is no senator closer, more organically tied to the grass-roots [climate] movement,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, adding Markey has combined that understanding with an old-hand’s grasp of Senate procedure to get the group’s climate priorities into the bill.

House majority leader Chuck Schumer told Markey last week that the Civilian Climate Corps will be in the package. And Markey said he expects the funding in the Senate reconciliation package for the corps to be “significantly bigger” than the $10 billion over five years Biden proposed in his American Jobs Plan. Behind closed doors, he is lobbying for the corps to pay members $15 an hour, provide health care coverage, and meet high labor standards, according to a person familiar with those discussions.

If passed, it would be the kind of policy win that gives young climate activists — who made headlines in 2018 for occupying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to press her to be more aggressive in fighting climate change — a reason to back the reconciliation bill even though they want it to go further.


“The fact that it is the most historic investment is thanks to movements and activists and people like Markey,” said Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for Sunrise.

“Democrats are leaving a lot on the table in terms of meeting this moment,” Sciales said. “If you’re asking if we’re going to block this package if it doesn’t include every single thing, the answer is ‘no.’ But we’re going to keep fighting for everything that is needed.”

Markey is quick to thank the activists, to whom he may well owe both his reelection and his shot at realizing a career-long dream of passing sweeping climate legislation. He attracted their support after lunching with liberal Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in late 2018, the pair then releasing the Green New Deal in early 2019. The activists’ backing helped transform the septuagenarian Markey during the primary into a progressive icon on the left.

Shielded from the July sun by the shade of a dogwood tree, Markey gathered with Schumer and other congressional supporters of the climate corps Tuesday morning outside the US Capitol to call for the New Deal style effort to be included in the final infrastructure deal.

“Today we stand at the dawn of a new era of climate action and we owe a great deal of gratitude and thanks to the activists and the climate leaders who brought us here today,” Markey said, standing in the same location where he and Ocasio-Cortez rolled out the Green New Deal.


Ocasio-Cortez said that although she would like to see trillions of dollars more in spending to address climate change, she understood Markey’s limitations in the Senate.

“This is exactly the thing with a 50-50 Senate, it’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “You leverage the position that you can as far as you can without losing another member.”

There is much that could still go awry. Manchin is the biggest concern. Last week, the West Virginian said he was “very, very disturbed” about the possibility that climate provisions in the reconciliation bill would eliminate fossil fuels.

That leaves Markey trying to balance Manchin’s concerns with the demands of climate activists.

“Ultimately, it is important for us to listen to Joe Manchin and try to make adjustments that he feels are essential, while not disturbing the fundamental direction and goals which we established,” Markey said.

He describes the infrastructure package as only a “first step” toward goals like zeroing out carbon emissions by 2050. And he is not dwelling on the 12 years lost between his last major climate bill and this one, a period in which extreme climate events have only worsened.

“As long as we get it done now,” Markey said, “all of that effort was worth it.”

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Follow her @jessbidgood. Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.