Equilibrium & Sustainability

Manchin climate stance threatens to shatter infrastructure bargain

Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) refusal to support the centerpiece of President Biden’s climate agenda puts the Democrats’ entire infrastructure and social spending agenda at risk.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) two-track strategy for passing Biden’s agenda was based on the expectation that Manchin would give ground to progressives in exchange for their support of the hard infrastructure bill that he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) negotiated with Republicans.

But Manchin’s infrastructure bill, including billions of dollars in new money for West Virginia’s needs — such as the Appalachian Development Highway System — has passed the Senate and he’s still not signing on to the climate investments that are a key demand of progressive Democrats.

His staunch opposition to a $150 billion clean electricity plan that was supposed to be the backbone of Biden’s transition to clean energy puts what was supposed to be a grand bargain between moderate and progressive Democrats in danger.

Without Manchin, Democratic leaders likely won’t have the votes in the Senate to pass the $2 trillion to $3 trillion social spending package through reconciliation. But gutting the bill’s climate provisions risks Democrats losing the votes of progressives in the Senate for the reconciliation bill and in the House for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

 Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) says his fellow Democrats are growing increasingly nervous. They know the longer talks drag on, the more likely that disagreements will become entrenched.

“The longer we wait, the less likely that we’re going to produce a product that the American people are anxious to receive,” Durbin warned, emphasizing that his colleagues are feeling “anxious.” 

Durbin said he was disappointed that Manchin has seemingly knocked one of the key climate reforms out of the bill.

“I support the clean electricity approach and I’m sorry that Sen. Manchin’s opposed to it,” he said.

Durbin acknowledged Monday that failure to pass legislation to significantly slash the emissions of global warming gasses would be seen as a major failure.

Manchin on Monday pushed back against criticism from fellow Democrats that he’s holding up Biden’s agenda by not reciprocating the support progressives gave to his bipartisan infrastructure bill this summer.

He argued that he and Sinema aren’t the only obstacles to Biden’s most ambitious proposals, noting that there is universal opposition from Republicans.

“There are 52 senators who don’t agree, OK? And there are 52 senators who don’t agree, and there are two who want to work something out if possible, in the most rational, reasonable way,” he said.

Manchin also raised doubts about meeting an Oct. 31 deadline for getting a deal worked out, telling reporters: “I don’t know how that would happen.”

Progressives led by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have warned for months they would not support a massive budget reconciliation package if it did not include bold reforms to cut carbon emissions.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have a deal and it’s going to be good enough on climate or it won’t go,” Whitehouse said last month.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) is now warning she won’t support the reconciliation bill unless it includes major environmental reform. 

“The Build Back Better budget must meaningfully address climate change. I’m open to different approaches, but I cannot support a bill that won’t get us where we need to be on emissions. There are 50 Democratic senators. Every one of us is needed get this passed,” she tweeted. 

A Democratic senator on Monday evening said Manchin’s firm opposition to the clean electricity program is imperiling the whole dual-track strategy because progressives made clear during the debate on the bipartisan infrastructure package that they expected major climate provisions to pass later in the year.

“It’s a real risk. We’re all very frustrated and we’re all very nervous about it,” the senator said of the danger that both the hard infrastructure and the budget reconciliation bill may go nowhere. “It’s proving very hard to get all the key players in the room to hammer it out, in part because of Manchin’s desire for a strategic pause. He doesn’t want to work it out. It’s a big problem.”

Whitehouse on Monday said if the clean electricity program is out of the bill, it will have to be replaced with other reforms that would have as much impact.

“It requires a recalculation of how we get to our emissions reductions goals and makes measures like the methane pollution fee and the carbon pollution fee all the more essential,” he said.

In a 50-50 Senate, a single Democratic defection is enough to block Biden’s human infrastructure spending package, which Manchin wants to chop down to $1.5 trillion, well below the $3.5 trillion target set in the Senate budget resolution.

Progressives in the House led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) say they won’t vote for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — passed by the Senate in August — unless there’s a deal on the budget reconciliation package.

Democratic centrists in the House tried to force a vote on the bipartisan bill during the last week of September, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was forced to pull the bill off the floor after progressives held firm and threatened to defeat it while the bigger reconciliation spending package remains in limbo.

 Ryan Frankenberry, the state director at West Virginia Working Families Party, said “we are certainly coming up a pressure point between the House and Senate Democrats.”

While he said he thinks “something will pass,” he acknowledged it’s “possible” the grand bargain between Democratic centrists and progressives could collapse.

“I think that Joe Manchin understands what’s at risk here and the future of our state and our country are too important,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical that we get this passed and get it passed now.”

 Frankenberry’s group is part of a coalition that has launched a six-figure television ad buy to put more pressure on Manchin to support Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. The ad stresses that the reconciliation bill could create 30,000 new jobs in West Virginia.

 White House staff are now trying to find alternative reforms to wean energy utilities off of fossil fuels, but they face skepticism from environmental experts who question whether they can get Manchin’s support for anything that would reduce market demand for coal and natural gas.

An advocate for a major environmental lobbying group argued that the reconciliation package will include a variety of tax breaks for renewable energy sources that will have a significant impact on emissions, calling them “really a big deal.” 

Yet the source acknowledged the clean electricity program “is really important” because it would give some of the worst polluting energy utilities financial incentives to adopt cleaner technologies. Electricity plants that are already moving away from fossil fuels are viewed as more likely to take advantage of clean-energy tax incentives than utilities that have done little to change their operations. 

One Senate Democratic aide suggested that Biden may add more funding for social spending programs in the reconciliation package to make up for the loss of one of his central climate proposals and keep liberals happy.

“I think the White House has an opportunity here to figure out a way to get progressives to stay on board by giving them something else,” the source said. 

Tags Biden agenda Charles Schumer Climate change Dick Durbin Ed Markey Infrastructure Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Reconciliation Senate Sheldon Whitehouse Tina Smith

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