Manchin faces make-or-break vote on permitting reform
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) faces a make-or-break moment for his top policy priority when the Senate holds a key procedural vote Tuesday on his permitting reform bill, which Republican leaders are working hard to defeat.
The Senate will vote at 5:30 p.m. on a motion to proceed to a House-passed “shell” bill that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hopes to use as a legislative vehicle to pass a government funding bill with Manchin’s permitting reform legislation attached.
Schumer promised to attach Manchin’s permitting reform measure to must-pass legislation before the end of September as part of a deal to get Manchin to support a budget reconciliation package that tackled climate change and the high cost of prescription drugs.
But Manchin’s side of the arrangement could fall apart because Republicans — still angry about his deal with Schumer — don’t want to give him a political win.
The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has made permitting reform and rebuilding bipartisan relations two of his top priorities in the 50-50 Senate.
The defeat of his bill, which would include approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a project estimated to support 3,700 construction jobs in West Virginia — would serve as a major rebuke from Republicans and an embarrassment for Manchin, who has called for bipartisan comity throughout 2021 and this year.
Manchin admitted on Monday that Republican opposition caught him by surprise.
He said he expected progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to oppose his permitting reform proposal, but not backlash from GOP colleagues.
“I never did think I’d have Bernie and some of the extreme far-left,” he told Fox News host Neil Cavuto. “What I didn’t expect is that Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] and my Republican friends would be sacking up with Bernie or trying to get the same outcome by not passing permitting reform.”
Senate GOP leaders, including McConnell, the minority leader, are treating the procedural vote as a test vote on Manchin’s permitting bill and are urging fellow Republicans to oppose it in favor of rival legislation from his West Virginia colleague, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R).
“There’s a concerted effort in the Republican conference to stay united in our support for Capito’s legislation and to stay united in our opposition to Manchin,” said a GOP aide.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) is leading the whip effort, but the top three Senate Republican leaders — including him, McConnell and Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) — are on the same page.
Barrasso, who is also the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says that in some ways Manchin’s bill is a step backwards in terms of the authority it hands to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Federal Reserve.
Sanders circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter Friday urging his colleagues to oppose Manchin’s bill, even if it’s attached to a must-pass spending bill to keep the government open past Friday, the end of the fiscal year.
Sanders warned Manchin’s bill “would fast-track the approval of potentially dozens, if not hundreds, of some of the largest and dirties fossil fuel projects in America each and every year.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has also warned he will vote against Manchin’s bill because it approves the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which includes a 100-mile span of pipeline through Virginia, and shift jurisdiction over legal challenges to the project from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to the D.C. Circuit.
But most of the opposition to the bill is coming from Republicans, and if McConnell and his leadership team are opposed, Manchin will have a tough time getting the dozen or so GOP votes he needs.
Ironically, if Republicans defeat Manchin’s bill, they will hand a political victory to Senate and House progressives, including Sanders, who are strongly opposed to Manchin’s reforms, which they argue would be a huge give-away to the fossil fuel industry.
Republicans are still furious with Manchin, whom they think double-crossed them by voting for a corporate tax hike and hundreds of billions in new spending on climate programs after it appeared he had walked away from negotiations with Schumer in July.
Manchin on Monday argued that the Inflation Reform Act he voted for last month didn’t raise taxes but instead implemented a tax floor to stop corporations from exploiting loopholes to pay less in taxes, percentage-wise, than many regular Americans.
“That’s the only thing we did in taxes,” he said on Fox News. “We’re just trying to get corporations that paid nothing to pay at least 15 percent.”
He shook his head over his sudden fall from grace among Senate Republican colleagues.
“You can be a hero one day and a villain the next,” he said, alluding to the praise he received from Republicans after sinking President Biden’s Build Back Better framework in December.
He chalked up the GOP opposition to his permitting reform bill to politics more than anything.
“[If] politics get in the way, I’m sorry,” he said.
Republicans have long called for permitting reform to speed the development of fossil-fuel extracting energy projects around the country.
But they say Manchin’s bill doesn’t go far enough, and they don’t want to hand him a political victory after he shocked them by cutting a deal in July to pass Biden’s tax, climate and prescription drug agenda.
Capito’s Simplify Timelines and Assure Regulatory Transparency (START) Act is more comprehensive than Manchin’s bill.
It would codify the Trump administration’s National Environmental Policy Act regulations, codify Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule’s definition of waters subject to federal protection, expedite the permitting and review processes, setting a framework for timely approvals of energy projects, limiting permitting review schedules to two years and limiting the page length of environmental documents.
Instead, Republicans are lining up to vote against Manchin’s bill, and if they defeat it, they will hand a victory to environmental justice groups and House progressives, who have lobbied with limited success to persuade Schumer to split permitting reform off from the short-term government funding bill.
Karen Orenstein, the director of the Climate and Environmental Justice Program at Friends of the Earth, said Republicans would hand progressives a victory by sinking what she called Manchin’s “dirty deal.”
“It is a win in so far as we are standing up to an attempt to sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of BIPOC and low-income communities in the name of lining the pockets of fossil fuel corporations,” she said if the Senate blocks Manchin’s bill, which she believes would disproportionately impact minority communities.
She said if the bill fails to advance, “it sends a very strong political message.”
The stakes are high for Manchin, who is up for reelection in 2024 in a state that former President Trump carried with huge margins in 2016 and 2020.
“If the permitting reform goes through, the pipeline will be completed in a more timely manner … and it will help Manchin in terms of his ability to build coalitions,” said Marybeth Beller, a professor of political science at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.
Beller said if the bill becomes law, “it certainly does” help Manchin’s reelection chances because it would help alleviate the anger many Republicans in West Virginia feel over his support for the Inflation Reduction Act this summer.
“If he gets the pipeline permitting bill in, that is going to favor industry and favor Republican Party preferences, so I think there would be less opposition” among Republican leaning voters to Manchin in 2024,” she said.
She pointed out that Manchin is still “so very, very popular” in his home state, but warned that “of course” it would be an embarrassment if he can’t Republicans to support his permitting reform bill.
“For Sen. Manchin, getting the permitting bill through is an obvious point of policy preference. I don’t think he foresaw Republicans not supporting it. I think his concentration has been more on getting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to be for it, and this Republican backlash has been very strong and is not something he prepared very well for,” she said.
Manchin suffered another setback Monday when a coalition of 18 Republican state attorneys general sent a letter to Schumer and McConnell urging them to oppose Manchin’s permitting reform bill.
They warned the bill would empower FERC to steamroll over their state’s sovereignty over building transmission facilities.
“This would create the scenario where FERC would have the authority to determine the national interest and require companies to build what it orders and where,” they wrote. “This is a massive expansion of FERC’s authority which currently only allows FERC to order public utilities to physically connect their existing transmission lines.”
If Republicans block the motion to proceed to the House shell bill on Tuesday, then Schumer will have to come up with plan B to pass a short-term funding resolution before government funding expires at 12 a.m. Saturday.
The Democratic leader could then opt to bring to the floor a continuing resolution that doesn’t include Manchin’s permitting reform bill.
Manchin on Monday said he was feeling good ahead of the vote and had done everything he could to advance his issue.
He warned that this week’s votes could be the last chance to pass permitting reform in years.
“I don’t see it ever coming back again, people just aren’t going to be there at all,” he said, pointing out that Democrats are only willing to pass permitting reform now because of the deal he struck with Schumer in July.