Some Democrats hope climate consensus can save budget bill

Progressive Democrats say climate provisions written with Manchin

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., suggested the Senate should act in time for President Joe Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., suggested the Senate should act in time for President Joe Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 31, 2022 at 9:22am

Proposals for tackling climate change are emerging as an area of Democratic unity that could reach the congressional finish line and potentially bring with them at least some other measures in the party’s budget reconciliation bill.

Senate Democrats returning to Washington this week will resume talks over the $2.2 trillion package approved by the House last year.

[Democrats mull how much to build back, and when, in budget bill]

Their House counterparts from the party’s progressive wing, as well as some swing district moderates, have been urging the Senate to get moving on a version of the legislation that would be centered around its climate provisions, which include more than half a trillion dollars in tax incentives and spending measures.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., at one point suggested starting from scratch because of his problems with some areas of the House-passed bill, but he’s also indicated he’s in agreement with much of the climate portion as it now stands.

During a Zoom session with environmental activists last week, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., suggested the Senate should act in time for President Joe Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address, a timeline she said was not the result of any naivete or idealism on her part.

“It’s because I actually spoke to Sen. Manchin,” she said. “Over several months I’ve been speaking to him, and the climate provisions as they are crafted are crafted with and by him.”

In fact, it was in large part due to Manchin’s concerns that Democrats made a number of changes to their original proposals, paring back spending levels, ditching a Clean Electricity Performance Program that would have pushed utilities to switch to renewable energy sources, and tweaking a methane fee to phase in its implementation and provide $775 million in EPA funding to help companies cover their compliance costs.

Despite those changes, a number of environmental groups and their allies on Capitol Hill have touted what remains in the bill, saying it would still represent the largest congressional action ever on climate. Jayapal said the bill’s climate provisions would help achieve the goal of significantly reducing carbon emissions in the coming years.

“We believe that the things that we have crafted in the current investments in Build Back Better will take us a very long way towards reaching that goal,” Jayapal said.

She added that other steps will be required through executive action to tackle what couldn’t be included in the bill, specifically citing areas such as fossil fuel subsidies, power plant emission standards and vehicle standards.

Motivation

Altogether such actions would solidify Biden’s environmental legacy and help motivate voters in the crucial upcoming midterm elections, she said.

“We’ll get as much through legislation as we can, and then we need to use executive action as well,” Jayapal said.

The March 1 timeline Jayapal and others have floated seems unlikely given that both the White House and congressional leaders have pushed back on the idea.

The Senate has a laundry list of other immediate priorities to tackle: funding the government, reviewing a Supreme Court nomination and hammering out differences with the House over a bipartisan technology competition bill.

Manchin also could demand further changes based on his opposition to preferential treatment in the electric vehicle tax credits for union-made cars and trucks.

Still, Senate Democrats are hopeful that they can eventually get the budget bill passed and are looking to use the climate section as a foundation.

Derek Murrow, senior director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that the bill would speed the growth of renewable energy sources, make electric vehicles more affordable and deliver benefits to communities with historic ties to fossil fuels.

“Making these sound investments now; implementing new and ambitious carbon pollution standards at the federal, state and local levels; and making sure every agency of the federal government is part of the climate fix; will set the nation on track to achieve President Biden’s goal of cutting carbon pollution 50-52 percent by 2030,” Murrow said. “That’s what the science says we must do to avert the worst consequences of climate change. It’s time for the Senate to act.”

When combined with state and federal actions, as well as private sector moves, passing those climate provisions would help realize the Biden administration’s goal of cutting emissions by at least 50 percent from peak levels by 2030, said Trevor Higgins, vice president of climate policy at the Center for American Progress.

The bill’s clean electricity tax credits are central to decarbonizing the power sector, he said, and helping the country compete with China in areas such as solar power and battery storage. The bill would help cut energy costs, improve domestic manufacturing and “put victory within reach” on emissions reductions.

“Investments are important not because they do the job by themselves but because they make it possible for all the other policies and technical innovations and things like private actions that are planned — it makes all of those more cost-effective, easier to attain, and it kind of moves the whole system along at once,” Higgins said.

One example is how the bill’s credits for electric vehicles wouldn’t have to stand on their own. Instead, they would support the administration’s move to bolster vehicle emission standards by making it easier for consumers to purchase plug-in cars and trucks and thereby encourage manufacturers to produce them.

And the compromise version of the methane fee would help support the administration’s move to implement new methane-related regulations.

“My sense is that the climate components are going to be a part of what’s driving the bill forward,” Higgins said. “But they’re not going to be the whole deal by themselves and as you add other pieces to the package I think it only strengthens the case for enactment.”