The debate over climate-related provisions in the Democrats' budget reconciliation package sharpened Thursday as several left-leaning senators, joined by environmental activist groups, urged more moderate lawmakers to include aggressive steps to avert catastrophic climate change in the legislation.
They noted that President Joe Biden will have a tough time making the case for international climate action at the upcoming summit in Glasgow if he can’t even unify his own party behind his agenda.
“We must act in Congress before Joe Biden goes to meet with the rest of the world,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said at a Thursday news conference across from the U.S. Capitol. “President Biden must be able to put a deal on the table that reflects what we then expect from the rest of the world so that we begin a downward trajectory in terms of the greenhouse gases that are going up into the atmosphere.”
As negotiations continue over the size and scope of the budget reconciliation package, any significant drop in its $3.5 trillion overall number will require trimming parts of the package, and those at Thursday’s event made clear they will fight any effort to put climate provisions on the chopping block.
“It is possible to find middle ground in many areas of politics,” Markey said. “I know because I have done it, but we cannot compromise on science. There isn't a middle ground between a livable and unlivable world. We cannot pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill without the reconciliation package. We cannot slash climate funding in this package.”
Markey went through specifics, calling for a Civilian Climate Corps intended to put Americans to work fighting climate change, a clean electricity standard to push utilities toward renewable energy sources and an overhaul of the tax code to promote clean energy while eliminating “outdated, unnecessary” fossil fuel incentives.
He also said “natural gas is not clean energy and it is not climate action.”
Thursday’s event comes as a pair of moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been pushing to pare back the proposed reconciliation package. Moderate Democrats in the House have pushed for a vote on the separate bipartisan bill that has already passed the Senate before considering any reconciliation package.
To pass the budget reconciliation package with a simple majority, Democrats will need every member of the caucus, which includes two independents, to vote for the legislation, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
Both Manchin and Sinema have recently been confronted by groups upset with their resistance to the full $3.5 trillion package — kayakers turned up at Manchin’s houseboat in Washington while protestors followed Sinema into a bathroom.
Thursday’s event represented a more traditional pressure campaign with young activists passionately arguing their case and holding up “No Climate No Deal” signs with the Capitol Dome in the background.
Manchin has emerged as a significant roadblock to climate proposals, having laid out a number of related red lines in an agreement he signed with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., when he voted to take the first steps in the budget reconciliation process. That agreement was obtained by Politico and confirmed by a Democratic aide.
Among the positions Manchin staked out was a defense of tax provisions benefitting oil and gas companies, as well as the role of natural gas and carbon capture technology. He also insisted that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee he chairs retain sole jurisdiction over a clean electricity standard.
For the 2022 election cycle, Manchin is the No. 1 recipient among all lawmakers of campaign contributions from the coal mining, mining, natural gas transmission and distribution, and oil and gas industries, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Finance Committee, suggested at Thursday’s event that they could find some common ground with Manchin based on a line in the agreement he signed that said he wanted climate provisions to be “fuel neutral.” Wyden said that fits with his own proposals supported by Finance Committee Democrats to consolidate existing energy tax credits and tie them to reducing carbon emissions.
Wyden said they will be talking to Manchin, but that the days of fossil fuel companies getting whatever handouts they seek are over.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Manchin reiterated that his overall number for a reconciliation package is $1.5 trillion. As for his priorities, he cited the need to address 2017 tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations and highlighted the importance of helping children and seniors while lowering prescription drug costs.
He did not specifically mention climate change and stressed that it’s more important to get the legislation right than to do it quickly.
Republicans, meanwhile, already are going after Democrats for the climate proposals under discussion.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., devoted a chunk of his Thursday morning floor speech to criticizing a proposed methane fee and a clean energy standard that he said would raise costs for ratepayers.
"Jacking up Americans’ gas bills and utility prices in order to turn 49 other states into California — it’s a bad idea at an awful time," McConnell said. "And just one more way their reckless taxing and spending spree would hurt families and help China.”