Moderates split over climate plans in Democrats' spending package

Moderates split over climate plans in Democrats' spending package
© Greg Nash

Climate change provisions in a sprawling Democratic spending package are dividing moderates, creating major obstacles to getting the legislation across the finish line.

Those who have raised concerns include Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinK Street revenues boom Biden champions economic plan as Democrats scale back ambitions On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE (D-W.Va.) and several Texas Democrats in the House who have criticized proposals designed to accelerate the country’s shift toward cleaner energy and away from fossil fuels.

But other centrists, like Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyDemocratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push MORE (D-Fla.) and Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaPolice recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE (D-Ariz.), have appeared more open to those components of the package as they criticize other elements.

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The divisions among moderates largely reflect regional interests, underscoring the challenges to getting the moderate wing of the party on board with the multitrillion-dollar spending package. Every Democratic senator and nearly every House member will need to vote for the final legislation to get it to President BidenJoe Biden White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Police recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom MORE’s desk.

Key aspects of the House package would make sweeping changes to address climate change, through tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles, a fee on methane emissions from oil and gas, and a program that seeks to switch electricity to clean energy sources through a combination of grants and fines.

The proposals — in particular the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) — have become a sticking point for moderates like Manchin, who argue that the market is already transitioning away from fossil fuels and that companies should not be paid for actions they were already planning on taking.

Manchin, whose state is one of the top producers of coal and natural gas, also recently told reporters that natural gas "has to be" part of the program.

The House proposal, however, would not count natural gas toward power providers' clean energy portfolio under the CEPP, meaning they would not get credit for switching. While gas is cleaner than coal, it is still a significant source of planet-warming emissions.

“I’m all for clean energy, but I’m also for producing the amount of energy that we need to make sure that we have reliability,” Manchin told reporters in late September.

Meanwhile, a group of six Texas Democrats wrote a letter last month saying they oppose “the targeting of U.S. oil, natural gas, and refining with increased taxes and fees and the exclusion of natural gas production from clean energy initiatives.”

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Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the signatories, said lawmakers have been concerned about potential “targeted taxes” that have not appeared in the House proposal. He also raised concerns about the methane fee in an interview with The Hill on Wednesday.

“There’s another way to address the issue of methane,” he said, citing funding for innovation and regulating emissions of the potent greenhouse gas.

Cuellar was reluctant to call any of the climate provisions a deal-breaker, but said he would weigh the final bill’s positives and negatives before deciding whether to support it.

“I want to make sure there’s no punitive tax against any industry, and that includes the energy industry,” he said. “But once you get to the overall, you have to look at the overall good, it’s kind of hard for me to say what are the red lines.”

Others have expressed more support for the legislation’s provisions that would shift the U.S. away from fossil fuels.

Murphy told The Hill on Tuesday that Democrats should be “as bold as the votes will bear” on climate change.

“Let’s do all that we can do given the slim majorities and the evenly split Senate,” she said, adding that she would support a bill that included the CEPP criticized by Manchin if it could get across the finish line.

But she’s less enthusiastic about other components of the package.

Murphy was the only Democrat to vote against portions of the spending bill last month in the House Ways and Means Committee, arguing that the legislative process was too rushed and saying she had concerns about some spending and tax provisions. Still, she noted in a statement explaining her vote that she supported the climate provisions advanced by the panel.

The committee’s legislation included a number of renewable energy tax incentives.

Murphy and Cuellar additionally penned a letter saying the overall bill’s spending provisions should be offset, but with a possible exception for climate change measures.

They noted their exception “in light of the fact that cost estimates prepared by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation do not adequately account for the future costs associated with inaction on the climate crisis.”

“I believe that not addressing our climate issue is fiscally irresponsible,” Murphy told The Hill.

Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerModerates split over climate plans in Democrats' spending package Bleak midterm outlook shadows bitter Democratic battle Democrats downplay deadlines on Biden's broad spending plan MORE (D-N.J.), whose district includes suburbs of New York City, was a leader of moderates’ failed effort to secure a House vote on a Senate-passed infrastructure bill last month. But he has said he also wants to see the broader Democratic bill passed, adding in a statement earlier this month that he does not want “strong climate protections” to be victims of cuts to lower the top-line spending number.

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Rep. Ed CaseEdward (Ed) CaseMORE (D-Hawaii), who has raised concerns about the potential for the spending package to include budget gimmicks, told The Hill on Wednesday that targeted climate provisions are “one of the highest priorities” for him in the package. He praised the CEPP in particular, saying it “could have the biggest and fastest and broadest bang for the buck.”

Sinema, meanwhile, has also appeared supportive of climate action, despite publicly offering few policy specifics of what she could support in the final bill.

“In Arizona, we're all too familiar with the impacts of a changing climate ... from increasing wildfires to the severe droughts, to shrinking water levels at Lake Mead, damage to critical infrastructure — these are all the things that we're dealing with in Arizona every day,” she told the Arizona Republic last month. 

”We know that a changing climate costs Arizonans. And right now, we have the opportunity to pass smart policies to address it —looking forward to that,” she added.  

Her office also recently denied a New York Times report that said she wanted to cut $100 billion in climate spending from the package.

Experts say the differing views among moderates is heavily rooted in geographical considerations.

“There are places that have seen the impacts more so than others,” said Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “They’re more in tune to the impacts and they’re more likely to be demanding that there be action from Congress.”

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“Not every district is the same in terms of the ... clean energy opportunities,” he said, while adding that he believes there are opportunities “everywhere.”

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said climate change is an important issue for suburban voters, who have played a key role in determining which party controls the House in recent election cycles. As a result, he argued, it would be a mistake for Democrats to cut climate provisions as they trim the size of the spending package.

“There is a lot of sentiment in favor of fighting climate change in suburban districts,” he said.