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Rep. Huffman, joined by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, calls for full spending bill with robust climate provisions

Rep. Jared Huffman aligned his natural-disaster battered Northern California district with New York’s progressive Bronx neighborhood and its tenacious Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Friday town hall where both politicians called passing the $3.5 trillion budget bill an imperative if the nation is to respond to climate change.

The lawmakers said they will continue to resist passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill the U.S. Senate has approved without assurances that the Democrat-controlled Congress will also pass the Build Back Better Act, which funds a wide range of progressive priorities, including landmark climate change legislation.

Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, criticized two Democrat senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have blocked the package’s passage through Congress along party lines.

Huffman said Democratic lawmakers were relying on President Joe Biden to strike a deal with the two that would be palatable for progressives.

“They’re standing in the way of doing something really transformative," Huffman said, and ”certainly the biggest thing we’ve ever done to confront this existential crisis (of climate change).“

Within an hour of the meeting’s ending, his point was starkly underlined. The New York Times reported Friday evening that Manchin, whose state is a leading coal producer and who has accumulated personal wealth from the coal industry, told Biden he would not vote for the package if it included a $150 billion program to hasten the nation’s switch to renewable energy sources.

White House aides are now scrambling to draft the legislation anew without those measures, according to the New York Times, eliminating a measure Huffman said was key for the United States to do its part in reducing global carbon emissions.

Along with Biden, Huffman is scheduled to travel to Copenhagen at the end of the month for a United Nations climate summit. If Manchin’s wishes carry the day, the country’s delegation will arrive with a sharply weakened hand, the New York Times reported.

Critics have accused progressive House members of risking a significant bipartisan infrastructure investment by holding out for the larger package. But Ocasio-Cortez said progressives had enough power in the House, where Democrats can afford to lose a few votes, to make their stand for broader action.

For Northern California, the gains are significant and the choice clear, Huffman argued. The infrastructure bill contains a $65 billion investment in broadband infrastructure and $73 billion to adapt the country’s electrical grid to a future with more renewable energy which would benefit Northern California, he said.

“The rest of it is frankly throwing money at traditional highway infrastructure,” he said in a phone interview after the town hall event.

“The good pieces of the Senate bill we can still pass any old time,“ he said.

On the flip side, the larger package contains a litany of programs that could transform life on the North Coast in many ways over the coming decade, Huffman said.

On the climate change front, the package would ban offshore drilling in federal waters off the West Coast. Through $300 billion in clean energy tax credits it would incentivize offshore wind development that Biden has said could bring thousands of jobs to places like Humboldt Bay.

The bill carries what Huffman called a “historic federal investment” in wildfire resiliency. It also contains funding to build the SMART passenger railroad a new bridge over the Russian River into Healdsburg and help elevate and safeguard a stretch of Highway 37 that is vulnerable to rising seas — investments that were left out of the Senate’s infrastructure deal.

The Build Back Better Act would spend $3.5 trillion over 10 years and, according to Democrats, pay for itself by boosting the federal government’s ability to collect unpaid taxes from corporations and wealthy individuals.

Politically for Huffman, the appearance alongside Ocasio-Cortez was “a big deal,” said Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan.

An alliance with a national progressive star like Ocasio-Cortez spotlights Huffman’s “growing role as a next generation leader” in his party’s left flank at a time when the Democratic party “is searching for its way forward,” McCuan said.

Huffman entered Congress in 2013, at a time when Republicans held the House majority. A former state lawmaker and attorney with the hard-charging Natural Resources Defense Council, he has forged leadership roles on environmental protection and policy making, a close fit with the green values of his 2nd District, which stretches from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border.

During his time in Washington, D.C., his home region has been ravaged by massive wildfires, declining fisheries, destructive floods and now another prolonged, historic drought — all of it bringing increased urgency to the congressman’s calls for a swift and substantive federal response to climate change.

Ocasio-Cortez’s relentless and high-profile focus on climate change has been a shot in the arm for an issue he has toiled over "in the trenches“ for decades, said Huffman, 57.

“She brought all of these young people and these diverse communities of color to the climate fight and it has really strengthened the movement for bold climate action and we needed it,” Huffman said in the interview.

As Ocasio-Cortez and other young progressive leaders join Congress and call for sweeping climate change action, Huffman, a subcommittee chairman on the powerful House Natural Resources Committee, is well positioned as a bridge between them and many of his more senior Democratic colleagues, McCuan said.

“He is between the old and the new,” McCuan said “which is where he wants to be.”

“Some people that have been in Congress a long, long time didn’t necessarily know what to make about Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal crowd at first,” Huffman told The Press Democrat. “They’re bold and they’re loud and they’re a little edgy and they should be because this is about whether they’ll have a planet to live on. I’ve really tried to urge colleagues to resist the temptation to be put off by that and to listen to them and to empathize.”

Manchin’s opposition not withstanding, most Democrats have voiced support for passing significant climate change legislation. At an event in San Francisco on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke in favor of climate action in the Build Back Better Act, according to the New York Times.

“This is our moment,” she said, “we don’t have any more time to wait.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosas policy, politics, crime, and economy affect the lives of North Bay residents inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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