Manchin keeps Democrats guessing on climate change action

·Senior Editor
·5 min read

After infuriating Democrats by blocking the path forward for President Biden's Build Back Better spending bill, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., signaled this week that he was open to passing a standalone bill that addresses the legislation's climate change provisions.

“I think that the climate thing is one that we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else,” Manchin told reporters on Tuesday on Capitol Hill, adding, “There’s a lot of good things in [the bill]. I’ve always said, you know, we have a lot of money in there for innovation, technology, tax credits for basically clean technologies and clean environment.”

With Biden's climate agenda and pledges to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 hanging in the balance, some Democrats, including Green New Deal architect Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, quickly signaled that they were at least open to a possible compromise.

Yet other Democratic senators threw cold water on abandoning the all-or-nothing approach to passing the spending bill. Asked Wednesday by CNN if her party should pursue a standalone climate change bill, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., replied, "No, I don't think so," adding, "We have to find a package that can get 50 votes, and I think that's the path we are on right now."

Since Manchin announced his opposition on Dec. 20 to passing BBB in its current form, talks between the West Virginia senator and the White House have reportedly gone silent.

“I’m really not going to talk about Build Back Better," Manchin told reporters Tuesday. "There is no negotiation going on at this time.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to reporters outside his office on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to reporters outside his office on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

That's left Democrats with a choice: They can continue to negotiate with the man who has presented numerous roadblocks to Biden's agenda, or they can come away with nothing.

In the evenly divided Senate, many Democrats are reluctant to gut BBB's health care and immigration proposals, even if it means keeping climate change and child tax credit measures in place. Democrats have hoped to push BBB through via a process known as reconciliation, which sidesteps the filibuster and allows certain forms of legislation to pass with a simple majority of votes. But doing so would require Manchin and his fellow Democratic centrist, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, to sign on to the legislation.

Further complicating the strategy for the party is the fact that Manchin has sought to drastically water down BBB's climate provisions. In October, he insisted that $150 billion in clean-energy initiatives be removed from the legislation. Without the Clean Electricity Performance Program as part of the bill, environmentalists pointed out, the U.S. would almost certainly fall short of its emissions targets, all but ensuring that global temperatures will rise above the 1.5°C threshold that scientists say would cause worldwide devastation.

“Joe Manchin just launched a hand grenade at Glasgow,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, tweeted in October before the U.N. Climate Change Conference in the Scottish city. “[Without] a clean energy standard in the reconciliation package, Biden admin cannot meet pledge of 50% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by 2030. And international climate negotiations begin to collapse.”

Even if Democrats heed the advice of scientists and decide that a climate change bill is so important that it merits passing a bill stripped down of other priorities, Manchin has indicated he may still seek further changes.

“I think we have to continue to be realistic also; we have to have enough energy to run our country, and we have to have the transition as it happens, as we move from a fossil dependency to [one that is] cleaner, and you do that by using fossils in cleaner ways," Manchin said Tuesday. "You should be able to.”

In December, Manchin said one reason he had pulled support for BBB was that it shifted the country to clean energy too quickly.

"To do so at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years," he said.

Climate scientists and environmental activists counter that without a swift transition away from a fossil fuel economy, the kinds of extreme weather disasters seen in Texas and California in recent years will become commonplace.

In Glasgow in November, several senators said they viewed the climate change provisions in BBB as singularly important to pass into law.

“We don’t have a choice. The Build Back Better bill must pass," Markey told Yahoo News. "The climate sections in the Build Back Better bill must become law, and we’re all gonna work as hard as we can to make sure that happens.”

Of course, those comments were made before Manchin sent them back to the drawing board.