Likely chairwoman defends House climate panel from critics

House Democratic leaders have picked Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorOvernight Energy: Senate Dems introduce Green New Deal alternative | Six Republicans named to House climate panel | Wheeler confirmed to lead EPA Six Republicans named to House climate panel Democrats drill EPA official over decrease in polluter settlements under Trump 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 Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Omar controversies shadow Dems at AIPAC Five things to watch as AIPAC conference kicks off 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-CortezHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Romney helps GOP look for new path on climate change Overnight Energy: Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal probe | Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change | GM to add 400 workers to build electric cars 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) KhannaBooker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Clinton and Ocasio-Cortez joke about Kushner's alleged use of WhatsApp Overnight Defense: Senate breaks with Trump on Yemen war | Shanahan hit with ethics complaint over Boeing ties | Pentagon rolls out order to implement transgender ban | Dem chair throws cold water on Space Force budget 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.”