Climate legislation and Congress: the current state of play

Still tense.

  
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My last substantial post of last year was a summary of where things stand with Congress and climate. I ended by reiterating my confidence that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has been such an impediment throughout the process, would find his way to supporting some form of the Build Back Better Act, the Democrats’ last and only hope of taking substantial action on climate change.

Mere days later, Manchin threw up his hands and said, “I can’t get there — this is a No on this legislation.” So much for that prediction.

However! As we head into 2022, there are signs that Manchin’s tantrum was less apocalyptic than it appeared.

His objection to BBB — which, to be fair, was his objection for months; the Democrats just thought they could eventually get through to him — is that the bill contains a bunch of new programs that are only funded for a year, or a few years, and since they will inevitably be renewed (according to Manchin), the bill’s price tag is deceptive. He wants to include only programs that are funded for the full 10-year term of the bill, under the artificial budget cap he himself imposed.

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That would mean stripping a number of popular programs out of the bill. The process blew up because the other Democrats refused to believe that he was serious about doing so much damage to the legislation. However, as Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine, as anachronistic, stupid, and cruel as Manchin’s views are, he’s not willing to move on them. For any bill to pass, it will have to conform.

Insofar as there’s any good news in this young year, it is that Manchin seems positively disposed toward the climate portions of the bill. “The climate thing is one that we probably can come to an agreement much easier than anything else,” he told reporters on Tuesday. Other Democrats have expressed confidence that the climate portion of the bill will survive in some form.

This is in part because Manchin already stripped the bill of any sticks, anything that might penalize fossil fuels (most notably the Clean Electricity Performance Program). What’s left are $555 billion worth of carrots: grants, tax breaks, and other money showered on every form of clean energy, from R&D through demonstration projects through commercialization — very much including carbon capture at fossil fuel power plants, a Manchin fave. “There’s a lot of good things in there,” he said.

Somewhat oddly, Manchin also supports some of the reforms to federal oil and gas leasing that are in the House version of the BBB.

All of this seems to at least imply that he’s still open to some kind of bill. What he appears to want is a version of the BBB that, at a minimum, strips out the Child Tax Credit — which can not possibly fit under his cap on spending ($1.75 trillion), at least not when funded for 10 years, at least not if the bill is to contain anything else.

The Child Tax Credit kept millions of children out of poverty last year and could potentially cut child poverty by almost half. It ran out at the end of the year, and now at least 50,000 children in West Virginia stand to slip back into poverty. Manchin is choosing to allow millions of children to suffer a little more based on vague and ill-founded worries about inflation. It’s ghoulish and unforgivable.

Nonetheless, it is what it is, so Democrats will need to put together a diminished form of the BBB that protects the climate provisions. They still need to try; the stakes are too high not to. “If they can’t pull this off, then we failed,” John Podesta told The New York Times. “The country has failed the climate test.”

There are no signs of any such efforts thus far. “There is no negotiation going on at this time,” Manchin said on Tuesday, the same day Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said, “I've talked to Sen. Manchin numerous times during the break.” Oof.

Still, also on Tuesday, a group of senators expressed renewed determination to get the climate portions of the bill over the finish line. "We're going to get this done, come hell or high water,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), “and right now, we have both hell and high water."

"Frustration isn't a strategy,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), in what I can only interpret as a direct attack on yours truly. “We have to get it done."

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The senators even made a point of noting that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who has been such a problem on other parts of the bill, is “nothing but supportive of the climate provisions here," as Schatz put it.

Schumer, as usual, seems determined to press on. He said, “I intend to hold a vote in the Senate on BBB, and we’ll keep voting until we get a bill passed.” Good, I guess?

Meanwhile, what Senate Dems are actually moving forward on is some kind of filibuster reform or exemption intended to enable them to pass a voting rights bill without Republicans. In a letter to colleagues, Schumer said:

Over the coming weeks, the Senate will once again consider how to perfect this union and confront the historic challenges facing our democracy. We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Here, again, Schumer seems confident he can move Manchin and Sinema, despite no sign from either that they are willing to budge. "Anytime there's a carve out, you eat the whole turkey,” said Manchin. He said he would rather exhaust his ability to negotiate with Republicans, and from all indications, his capacity to negotiate with Republicans is infinite.

Meanwhile, there’s been no word about any of this from Sinema, who was last on record opposing any changes to the filibuster.

At least for now, there’s no reason to think that this isn’t just wheel-spinning symbolism, which is going to delay moving forward on BBB.

On the other hand, the fate of the republic is at stake, so maybe a little symbolism is warranted. If Manchin and Sinema think the filibuster is more important than the right of every American to vote, let them say so affirmatively and publicly, on the record.

On the other other hand, the fate of the atmosphere is also at stake, and if Democrats dump all over Manchin for blocking filibuster reform, it might piss him off and make him even more recalcitrant on BBB.

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In the coming weeks and months, there will be votes on both these bills and we will have a much better sense of where things stand. The path to (some measure of) success, on climate or much of anything else, is narrow and getting narrower, but it isn’t closed off yet.

In the meantime, we begin the year where we ended the last one: in deep uncertainty and anxiety, as matters of unfathomable significance are decided by a small handful of vain old white guys. So much fun.

Anyway, I apologize to the political obsessives on the list — I suspect there are quite a few of you — if you knew all this stuff already. I thought it would be worth getting everyone on the same page, with a clear view of the stakes.

I’ll be back next week with some wonkery and a very fun podcast guest.