Julia Nikhinson

Now that Democrats will control both chambers of Congress and the White House, lawmakers see new chances to enact a range of climate change legislation.

Lawmakers and environmentalists anticipate pushing measures to promote clean energy, decarbonize the transportation sector and tackle environmental inequality.

But there are hurdles to achieving those goals, most notably the lack of 60 Democratic votes in the Senate to avoid a likely GOP filibuster. Democrats will also need to win over moderate members in their own caucus.

Still, the recent Senate runoff victories in Georgia that will give Democrats control of Congress starting Wednesday have given the party a renewed sense of optimism on climate legislation.

“Now the conversations are a little bit different,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who leads the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, during a virtual town hall last week. “We are now thinking in very ambitious terms.”

House Democrats are also energized by knowing that their bills will no longer languish in the Senate.

“There’s a very big difference between what happened over the last four years — where everything that the House passed, just sat in a graveyard on the Senate side and there was never any action on it — versus legislation being brought to the floor and Republicans having to actually vote it down … especially the extent to which a lot of this is incredibly popular,” said John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s global climate policy director. 

Measures that could be brought to the floor in either chamber include a range of environmental and climate priorities.

A spokesperson for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said the panel’s priorities will include: working toward a zero-emissions future for the transportation sector; fighting against environmental inequality in marginalized communities; improving the country’s drinking water systems; and promoting biodiversity by protecting wildlife and preserving public lands.

Congressional climate committees last year put out reports detailing measures they’d like to take to reduce emissions.

Among those were Democratic-backed measures that included tax incentives for clean energy and emissions reductions, carbon pricing and setting federal clean energy standards.

They also promoted investing in zero-emission vehicles and increasing funding for public transportation.

But Democratic control of each chamber does not guarantee success.

One significant hurdle is the need for 60 votes to advance most legislation in the Senate.

While some environmental legislation, like last summer’s Great American Outdoors Act conservation bill, may have enough bipartisan support to meet that threshold, measures taking aim at the fossil fuel industry would face an uphill battle.

Another obstacle could be Democrats themselves.

In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) expressed wariness of measures like a clean electricity standard.

“The market will take you there,” the incoming Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman said. “We have moved the date farther ahead than we ever thought we would have, and we have done it without total mandates.”

He also pushed for using coal, oil and gas in a “cleaner fashion” and stressed that natural gas “has to be” in the energy mix.

Before the Georgia runoff elections, an oil and gas industry source told The Hill they believed a narrow Democratic control would just result in more power for moderates in the middle, rather than the more numerous progressives.

But clean energy-backers are eyeing other strategies like the budget reconciliation process as a potential route to accomplishing their goals.

The approach only requires a simple majority to pass only budget-related measures, but it comes with certain parliamentary restrictions that make its use extremely limited.

Another possible avenue is tacking on climate measures to must-pass legislation like government spending bills or by adding them to large packages that contain bipartisan provisions.

“There’s a number of must-pass bills and I think all of them are opportunities to make progress, to really transition to a clean energy economy, once and for all, and to rebuild our economy in a way that is more equitable and just,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the League of Conservation Voters’s senior vice president of government affairs.

“Whether it’s COVID relief bills, broader economic recovery packages, infrastructure bills, a transportation bill, appropriations bills, we are going to push hard to ensure that they all make progress when it comes to climate solutions,” Sittenfeld said.

Castor said congressional action on a forthcoming infrastructure package is another way to incorporate climate provisions.

“Right off the bat we have to make the investments in clean energy through an infrastructure bill that is the cleanest and greenest ever enacted,” she said.

“That transportation infrastructure package early will be the primary, I think, way we go.”

Tags Joe Manchin Kathy Castor
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