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Democrats push climate proposals amid internal fights

Even some Senate climate hawks said they expect to make changes to what the House sent them

“I'm still optimistic we will add a polluter fee to the Build Back Better legislation here in the Senate," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
“I'm still optimistic we will add a polluter fee to the Build Back Better legislation here in the Senate," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A group of Senate Democrats is urging quick passage of their party’s budget reconciliation package in order to address climate change, even as a number of the bill’s climate-related provisions remain in flux.

“One of the reasons for urgency with regard to Build Back Better is to finally, to finally, at long last, make the kind of investment in climate change, combating climate change that we’ve been talking about for so long,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said at a press conference just outside the Capitol on Wednesday.

But even some of the lawmakers urging passage said they are still hoping to make changes to what the House sent them.

“Our work isn’t done yet,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said. “I’m still optimistic we will add a polluter fee to the Build Back Better legislation here in the Senate, something that will both generate needed revenue and allow us to lock arms with our allies.”

Coons said such an approach would underscore the U.S. commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also imposing a cost on imports from countries that continue manufacturing products such as iron and steel via carbon-intensive methods.

Another part of the bill facing an uncertain future is the House-approved fee on excess methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Those provisions were softened before the final House vote, with $775 million in EPA funding to help cover companies’ compliance costs and a phased-in approach that would have the fee ramp up over several years before reaching the full amount of $1,500 per ton.

A trio of south Texas House Democrats voted for the bill despite concerns about the fee’s impact on oil and gas operators and one of them, Rep. Henry Cuellar, indicated he would look for more changes to be made in the Senate, where Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has his own objections.

Still talking

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has been working to sell the compromise version to Manchin and alluded Wednesday to just how often they’ve been talking about it.

“I haven’t talked to him for probably 24 hours about this,” Carper said with a smile. “And I probably won’t talk to him again until this afternoon.”

Carper said he’s trying to explain why the compromise version is a far cry from the original proposal and stressed how the funding for compliance can help companies avoid emitting methane and thereby avoid having to pay any fees.

“They need to understand how we’ve moved away from simply saying ‘if you’re emitting methane, we’re going to slap a fine or fee on you,’” Carper said. “We’ve moved well beyond that.”

Carper invoked some football metaphors in describing the state of those talks, saying they’re “inside the 10-yard line” and hopeful of reaching the end zone.

“The question is are we going to put a price on carbon and that’s something I support,” Carper said of general climate discussions. “I don’t know that we have all the votes in order to do that. I’m really encouraged we will have the votes at the end to put in place the methane emission reduction program.”

Manchin and fellow moderate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have grabbed the lion’s share of headlines when it comes to Senate Democrats objecting to provisions in the reconciliation package, but others have some questions as well.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is also a farmer, spoke at the Wednesday event about the impact of climate change on agriculture and the need to invest in research and development so he can deploy farm equipment powered by electricity rather than diesel fuel. But when reporters asked about the methane provisions, he said he’s concerned about any climate approach based on raising taxes.

“I would rather approach it from an ‘it makes no sense for me from a business standpoint to run diesel engines anymore, because there’s an electric engine sitting there that No. 1 I don’t go deaf because of and No. 2 is much more economical and increases my bottom line profitability,’” Tester said.

Tester also questioned the prospects of a carbon tax being included in the bill, saying he had yet to see such a proposal that would work for truckers and farmers.

EV bonuses

Another sticking point has been an extra bonus in the bill’s tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles that would only apply to cars and trucks produced by unionized American workers. Other countries have raised objections to those provisions on the basis of international trade agreements and foreign automakers with nonunionized U.S. operations have complained that they aren’t fair.

Manchin expressed opposition to those bonus credits last month, describing them as “wrong” and “not American.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who supports the bonus credits said Wednesday she’s not sure where the proposal will land but that she continues talking to Manchin about it.

“I’m not interested in companies, foreign companies that have a unionized workforce in their own country, and then come into our country and go to places where they can fight collectively bargaining, to be able to somehow be rewarded for that,” Stabenow said. “We want a level playing field and we want the best wages possible for American workers.”

Republicans have their sights set on various challenges to the energy portions of the reconciliation bill, which includes using the so-called Byrd process to knock out provisions on the grounds they are unrelated to the budget.

The EPW committee’s ranking member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has pledged to fight several energy-related provisions in the bill, including those aimed at pushing states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She suggested those could be challenged as implementing new policies not allowed under budget reconciliation.

Challenging the methane fee on that basis could be tougher because it raises revenues, she said, but they could attack it through other avenues such as offering amendments.

“It’s going to hit the middle class, no doubt about it,” Capito said of the methane fee. “Because it’s a natural gas tax.”

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