WASHINGTON — Carlos Curbelo’s latest effort to shift the climate change debate within the Republican Party has a long way to go.
As the Miami Republican prepares to officially unveil a sweeping carbon tax bill on Monday that would provide $700 billion for infrastructure by taxing coal and natural gas emissions, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted for a resolution on Thursday expressing that a potential tax on carbon emissions would be detrimental to the U.S. economy.
Only six of 236 Republicans voted against the resolution, including Curbelo and retiring Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Curbelo argued that the resolution’s language was correct in that a carbon tax on its own would hurt the economy, but that a carbon tax paired with other ideas would help it.
“When you ask this question in a vacuum, is any tax detrimental to economic growth? It’s usually going to be yes,” Curbelo said. “But when you put it in context and you show how [a carbon tax] can be a component of a broader policy that is focused on winning the future, then it makes a whole lot more sense.”
Curbelo’s massive bill would repeal the federal gas tax and instead tax fossil fuels at the source. In exchange, the bill would enact a moratorium on certain environmental regulations if lower carbon emissions are met.
“Next week, you’ll see major legislation authored by a Republican and cosponsored by other Republicans to kind of show a good solution that… takes into account the cost of carbon emissions,” Curbelo said. “We wanted to make it as fair as possible and that’s why we repeal the gas tax. This is not about punishing consumers or punishing producers, it’s about making sure that we can hand off a clean, healthy planet to future generations while being sensitive to economic realities.”
But the political reality is that his bill is likely going nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress with Donald Trump in the White House. Curbelo acknowledged that the bill, which he has been working on since last year, is about bringing different sides of the debate together and changing the conversation on climate change.
Curbelo’s district, which stretches from West Dade to Key West, includes low-lying territory that makes it one of the most vulnerable in the country when it comes to the effects of climate change. It’s also the most vulnerable for Republicans politically, at least on paper: Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by more than 16 points in 2016, though Curbelo won reelection over former Democratic congressman Joe Garcia by over 11 points last cycle.
Curbelo’s likely Democratic opponent in November, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, accused him of political opportunism, noting that he voted in favor of the anti-carbon tax resolution in 2016 along with every other Republican in Congress.
“Just two years ago, Congressman Curbelo opposed a carbon tax and voted with his party to declare that it would supposedly harm American families,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “But now that he’s running against someone who has actively worked to fight climate change in our community, he wants us to believe he changed his mind.”
Mucarsel-Powell argued that Curbelo’s support for the GOP tax bill last year is evidence that he doesn’t care about the environment. The tax bill included language that opened up the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for potential oil drilling as a way to secure votes from Alaskan Republicans, and Curbelo voted for the massive tax package even though he didn’t support more drilling.
“South Florida is ground zero for climate change. We deserve an authentic leader who stands up for what they believe in, not someone who only shows up when it’s an election year,” Mucarsel-Powell said.
Curbelo is the co-founder of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of Republicans and Democrats concerned about the impacts of climate change. The group has 43 Republican members, though only four of them voted against the anti-carbon tax resolution and one Democrat in the caucus, Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, voted in favor of the resolution.
“Working with President Trump, this Congress is leading America toward energy dominance and strong economic growth, yet some liberal Washington special interests continue to pursue a radical agenda that includes imposing a job-killing carbon tax, which would raise costs on everything we buy from electricity and gasoline to food and everyday household products,” said Republican Whip Steve Scalise, who introduced Thursday’s resolution and could run for speaker if Republicans maintain control of Congress after the election.
Curbelo’s plan was analyzed by researchers from Columbia University and has support from some environmental groups. Opponents, including many Republicans in Congress, argue that a carbon tax will raise energy prices on working-class Americans.
“Adopting a carbon tax doesn’t have to disproportionately burden lower-income households,” said Joseph Rosenberg of the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institue, a Washington-based think tank. “With careful policy design, legislators could use the substantial revenue raised by a carbon tax to achieve a variety of goals, including a wide range of distributional outcomes.”
Curbelo’s plan would send 70 percent of the money raised by the carbon tax to the Highway Trust Fund, with 10 percent going to grants for low-income households and five percent going to flood-mitigation projects, which would all benefit his South Florida constituents caught in daily traffic and worried about sea level rise, and potentially get members from both parties to support the plan.
The carbon emission goals in Curbelo’s bill are also more stringent than the goals imposed by the Paris Agreement, which Trump pulled out of last year, and would levy taxes on non-U.S. goods from countries that don’t have carbon emission standards, components that Curbelo said should get environmentalists on board. The bill also creates a National Climate Commission that would offer recommendations to Congress for reducing carbon emissions.
“Every journey begins with a first step,” Curbelo said.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.