Likely chairwoman defends House climate panel from critics

House Democratic leaders have picked Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorOvernight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Pelosi warns of 'existential' climate threat, vows bold action Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows to push for Paris climate goals | Senate confirms Brouillette to succeed Perry at Energy | EPA under attack from all sides over ethanol rule MORE (D-Fla.) to chair a special panel on climate change, which is already facing criticism from progressives over its goals and powers.

Castor said House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats offer mixed reactions to Trump's Mideast peace plan James Taylor to perform at awards ceremony for Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week Trump offers two-state peace plan for Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid skepticism MORE (D-Calif.), the likely incoming Speaker, asked her to chair the committee.

“It’s not official,” Castor told The Hill Friday, saying that the select committee’s structure needs to be voted on by the entire House after Democrats take control Jan. 3, and then the speaker can choose the chairman.

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Castor faces a challenge as progressives push back on leadership's plans for the panel.

Despite demands from Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBiden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa New economic confidence polls show why Bernie won't win the White House Ocasio-Cortez rips 'public charge' decision: 'The American Dream isn't a private club with a cover charge' MORE (D-N.Y.), the panel will not be tasked specifically with formulating a Green New Deal, which includes a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, a universal jobs guarantee and other features.

It will also lack subpoena power, and lawmakers who have received donations from fossil fuel companies won’t be banned from serving on it, two other demands Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters have made.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto House Iran bills | Dems 'frustrated' after Iran briefing | Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision White House threatens veto of House Iran bills The DCCC's 'blacklist' protects a white male political status quo MORE (D-Calif.), one of the most outspoken incumbents backing a Green New Deal.

On the fossil fuel donation ban, Khanna said it’s “a basic issue of ethical refusal. Democrats can’t on the one hand say we want folks to recuse themselves at the Justice Department who have a conflict of interest with [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller’s investigation, and then in the same breath say we want people on committees with climate change who have a conflict of interest with climate change.”

Castor said progressives have nothing to worry about with her leading the panel, and she defended some of the decisions leaders have made.

“There’s some fabulous proposals in the Green New Deal, and I’m excited about all that. You may see some similar language. Clearly, the focuses are going to be the same,” she said. “This will be a committee clearly in the spirit of the Green New Deal."

Castor said she intended to prioritize communicating effectively about the urgency of climate change, including the impacts on local areas like her home state of Florida.

Castor faced significant criticism from progressives after telling E&E News Thursday that she didn’t want to ban members who have gotten donations from the fossil fuel industry.

“I don't think you can do that under the First Amendment, really,” she said at the time. 

“Without a mandate to create a plan and a requirement that its members don’t take fossil fuel money, we are deeply concerned that this committee will be just another of the many committees we’ve seen failing our generation our entire lives,” Varshini Prakash, co-found of the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement.

On Friday, Castor told The Hill her comments were “inartful.” But she stood by her belief that it’s improper to block certain members just because of their campaign donations.

“I’m hoping that folks will come to this committee ready to take on the corporate polluters and special interests. There shouldn’t be a purity test, that if a member of Congress has ever accepted contributions,” she said.

Castor said she has decided not to take any donations from fossil fuel companies.

“I think me saying that right now will help build confidence in the committee,” she said, noting that such a pledge won't be a“huge sacrifice,” since she has received just about $2,000 in campaign donations from the oil and natural gas industries during 12 years in office.

Progressives have also objected to Democratic leaders’ decision not to give the panel subpoena power or the ability to pass legislation that could go straight for a House vote. The last climate change select committee, which existed from 2007 to 2011, had subpoena power.

Castor said she agrees with the progressives on that, but she understands why the decisions were made.

“My position is that the committee should have legislative authority and should have subpoena power,” she said. “But I think that has been negotiated with the standing committee chairs, and we’re going to work together.”

Castor’s qualifications and visions for the committee have the support of at least some in the environmental community.

“Rep. Kathy Castor is an outstanding choice to help lead the House’s renewed focus on climate change,” John Bowman, senior director for federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

“As a longtime environmental champion, few are better suited to help shine a bright light on the threats Americans face from the climate crisis and advance the solutions we urgently need.”