Democrats hope to include climate and clean energy in a second bill. It could be Biden’s last chance to pass major global warming legislation.
WASHINGTON — A deal reached Thursday between President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators for $579 billion in new spending to repair the nation’s roads, rails and bridges does relatively little to fight climate change, an issue that the president has called an “existential threat.”
The deal does provide funding for public transit, passenger and freight rail, electric buses and charging stations for electric vehicles, all designed to try to reduce pollution from passenger vehicles and trucks. And it includes $47 billion to help communities become more resilient to disasters and severe weather caused by a warming planet.
Still, it contains few of the ambitious ideas that Mr. Biden initially proposed to cut the fossil fuel pollution that is driving climate change.
The president had hoped to use a sweeping infrastructure bill as a vehicle to enact a national “clean electricity standard” requiring power companies to gradually ratchet up the amount of electricity they generate from wind, solar and other sources until they’re no longer emitting carbon dioxide. That is not included in the bipartisan bill, nor are the hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on tax incentives for wind, solar and other clean energy.
Democratic leaders and environmentalists are hoping those proposals can be included in a separate infrastructure bill that would pass through a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation. That process would not require Republican support and could be enacted with a simple majority vote.
But that’s a difficult proposition, as Senate rules require that legislation enacted through the reconciliation process pertain directly to federal revenue — such as taxes and spending. The Senate parliamentarian could determine that a clean electricity standard does not qualify.
Mr. Biden said Thursday that he intends to move forward with more provisions in the second package. “I’m getting to work with Congress right away on the other half of my economic agenda as well,” he said. “The American family plan. To finish the job on child care, education, the caring economy, clean energy and tax cuts for American families and much more.”
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Biden still intends to push for passage of a clean electricity standard, either in the reconciliation process or in a separate standalone bill.
Failure to pass bold climate legislation could make it difficult for Mr. Biden when he travels to Scotland this year for a United Nations climate conference, where he intends to try to persuade other nations to take aggressive steps to curb global warming. Mr. Biden has pledged that the United States will slash its planet-warming emissions roughly in half over the next decade. He wants to reposition the world’s largest economy as a leader in global efforts to halt warming.
“The United States right now has an opportunity to back up its ambitious claims with a detailed and defensible plan to honor those commitments. If we have that plan we’ll be able to compel other countries to make similar changes,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview.
“If we don’t pass climate legislation through reconciliation, we won’t have the credibility to compel other countries to act at the scale and speed that’s needed,” Mr. Brune said.
Scientists have warned that the world needs to urgently cut emissions if humanity has any chance to keep average global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which experts say the planet will experience catastrophic, irreversible damage. Temperature change is not even around the globe; some regions have already reached an increase of 2 degrees Celsius.
Senate leaders are trying to load climate provisions into the reconciliation bill by way of tax incentives that could pass muster with the parliamentarian. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, has instructed the Democrats working on the budget bill to ensure that key climate components are included, according to a Senate leadership aide with knowledge of the talks. Those provisions include tax credits and incentives designed to prod power companies to reduce their emissions 80 percent by 2030, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota is one of several Democrats who have said they will not support a budget reconciliation bill that does not include significant climate provisions. Ms. Smith said a package must include an electricity standard as well as major investments in clean energy.
“Those two things must go hand in hand for it to have my support,” she said.
Some Democratic strategists are skeptical about the budget reconciliation route. Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both Democrats, have balked at voting for a reconciliation bill that has no Republican support. Mr. Manchin, who represents a coal-rich state, is unlikely to support a plan designed to end demand for coal.
“I think it will be as challenging in reconciliation now as increasing the minimum wage was at the beginning of the year,” said Rich Gold, an energy and environment lobbyist and former senior E.P.A. adviser in the Clinton administration, speaking of Democrats’ failed attempt to use the reconciliation process to raise the minimum wage.
“Having been around this joint for a while, I don’t think there’s any way to do this that will be politically viable with the Democratic conference in the Senate, and there do not seem to be any Republican votes for it,” Mr. Gold said.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the Republicans who worked on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, said she had considered the president’s request for a requirement that utilities gradually reduce their use of fossil fuels. “But I guess I’ve looked at it and I said ‘All right, is this really the place that you’re going to be focusing?’ I would rather not have it be that mandated standard,” she said.
Should Democrats fail to enact the clean electricity standard using this year’s one-shot chance at the budget reconciliation procedure, it is almost impossible to see how it could pass later. Senate procedures typically require 60 votes to pass legislation. Democrats could lose their thin Senate majority in next year’s midterm elections, effectively ending the road for Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda.
Absent a clean electricity standard, Mr. Biden could still use regulations governing utilities and tailpipe emissions to try to tamp down emissions. In addition, the reconciliation bill could enact billions of dollars in new tax credits over the course of a decade to further bring down the costs of wind, solar and other clean energy technologies as well as rebates to spur the purchase of electric vehicles.
“That package would set the country on the right path,” said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
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