Senator Whitehouse on stimulus discussions: The next bill ‘will be bipartisan’

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest with stimulus and climate change under President Biden.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, President Joe Biden has signed a series of executive orders to tackle the climate crisis in his first few weeks on the job. Now, one Senator says it is time for corporate America to join the fight. He's proposing a carbon tax to ensure some of the largest companies commit to cutting their emissions output.

Let's bring in Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island. And Senator, we're going to get to the efforts on climate in just a bit. But I want to see if we can get an update here on where things stand on the stimulus discussions.

We know, of course, that the President and Vise President had a meeting with Democratic senators at the Oval Office this hour. Do you see a path to a bipartisan passage if we're talking the $1.9 trillion package, introduced by the president? Or is the priority right now to just do this quickly, even if it means going through the process of budget reconciliation?

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think we are committed to the process of going through budget reconciliation. But that doesn't mean that it can't be bipartisan. What happens is that the budget committee gives very broad instructions to the official committees of the Senate. And then, those committees come back with legislation, compliant with the budget reconciliation instruction, which is really just a number in deficit effect.

So there's enormous authority on the substance of what's going to be done in these different committees. And on those committees sit Republicans, who will have every right to move amendments and to try to, you know, get their voices heard. And where those amendments are bipartisan and can be supported, then they can win. And they get into the process the old fashioned way, not through some, you know, Washington wheeler-dealering, but by actually bringing up their idea in an Amendment and trying to get the votes for it.

And then, that all comes back. And as long as it's still compliant with the budget reconciliation instructions, that's what then gets voted on. And there's every reason to believe that Republicans will get amendments into the different committee bills. And there's every reason to believe that Republicans will vote for the end product-- not all of them, but enough that this will be bipartisan.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, when we hear from Democrats, including President Biden, it does seem like there are pieces that are non-negotiables. You know, we've heard from him down in Georgia, talking about elect us, and we'll get stimulus checks passed through here. So that, to me, seems like one that there would be less willingness to budge. So when you are talking about maybe making this a little bit more bipartisan, what are the issues that you might expect to maybe see Democrats walk down to meet in the middle on?

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think a lot is going to depend on what Republicans bring to the table in these different committee processes. There is concern, I've heard, from Democrats and Republicans alike, about the incentive effect of the unemployment funding and if there's a way to solve that incentive problem, the incentive to return to work. I think that's something we'd be willing to consider.

I think there are a lot of smaller, technical programs to try to help people, and get money flowing, and make sure that schools can open, and make sure that people get vaccinations as quickly as possible. And if there are better ideas on those, we're more than happy to consider all of that. But budget reconciliation gives us a process to the old fashioned rule of majority rules. And we are going to be tangled up and tied up behind a bad faith filibuster. So this can be very bipartisan. It's just a question of majority rules.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I guess we'll see how the process goes. Obviously, optically, maybe Republicans might try and push back and say, look, this isn't a true bipartisan effort here. And if that's the case-- I mean, regardless of where you fall on that. Our viewers can make the call.

But I guess, does it maybe endanger some of the other issues that Democrats are looking to tackle, maybe in a bipartisan fashion, later on in this administration? Because we heard so much about unity coming up right when Biden came into office. So what is the Democrat view on maybe looking at this as look, we need to get this done. But it might come at a cost later on.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I think we're going to have to plan on doing two or three budget reconciliations in this Congress. They are there for us to use. And it would be foolish not to use them. I hope and expect that the process will be the same, that Republicans will have every chance to get their amendments considered in committee and every chance to vote for and debate the bill. And at the end of the day, we'll be able to get action for the American people.

And what we're seeing is that the kind of action that we're producing through this process has pretty broad support. You know, 60%, 70% of the American people seem to like what we are trying to do here. So the real bipartisanship and the real unity is having the country support this, rather than having partisan political gamesmanship in Washington snarl things up.

AKIKO FUJITA: Senator, let's talk about your efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Of course, you have been at this since 2012. You've talked about the need to involve corporate America. And you've called for a carbon fee-- a carbon tax, some would call it. What kind of pricing structure do you think is the most effective in getting to the ultimate goal of reducing carbon emissions in a significant way?

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Well, we start at $52 per ton, and then have an accelerator above GDP growth, as long as we are not meeting our carbon targets. There are other bills in the Senate-- other Democrat bills-- that have different targets. We can work our way through that.

I'm not married to that particular mechanism of, you know, $52, and this much of a percentage, and all of that. I do think that if we're going to solve this, it will help to have it be bipartisan. And in order for it to be bipartisan, we're going to have to probably consider carbon pricing or carbon fee.

And that is also, I think, the most effective mechanism for actually reducing carbon emissions. So between its efficacy and its prospect as a road way to bipartisanship, I think this is a very, very important goal. But it's a goal that we will not likely achieve if corporate America doesn't start to show up and take an interest in climate legislation in Congress.

And so far, the only sincere effort that's been made has been by the fossil fuel industry against our work. And nobody else has really shown up in favor of strong climate legislation. So I think under a Biden administration, that will change.

The Finance industry, the agricultural sector, coastal economies are all feeling real fear about where this leads if it's left running out of control. So there's, I think, more corporate pressure to finally take this seriously in Congress. And I very much hope that happens. Because it'll make a big difference, whether the good guys in corporate America show up or sit this out.

AKIKO FUJITA: And Senator, of course, the flip side of the argument has been that any kind of carbon tax would be a significant cost to companies at a time when many are struggling because of the downturn we've seen from the pandemic. What's your argument on why this is the time to do it?

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Well, now's the time to do it before the climate crisis gets out of control. We're probably 5 to 10 years late. So the timing is getting really urgent about doing something.

And because carbon pricing is the technique that most of corporate America has espoused, whether it's through Climate Leadership Council, or Business Roundtable, or C2ES, or the companies that supported the Commodities Futures Trading Commission report over, and over, and over again, where the American business community comes down is we want carbon pricing as a market based solution to this. So the position of corporate America is not against carbon pricing. It's actually for carbon pricing. And our task is going to be to make it efficacious in dealing with the climate problem, and also make sure that it's handled fairly so that lower income communities, small business, people who have been on the losing end of environmental justice see this as a win for them as well.

AKIKO FUJITA: What's been the impact from climate change on your state specifically? It was looking at roughly, what, 400 miles of coastline? How much of that has been--

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Yeah, we're going to have to re-draw our map.

AKIKO FUJITA: Affected directly by rising sea levels?

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: We're going to have to redraw our map. The map of Rhode Island has looked the same for as long as there has been Rhode Island. And before there was Rhode Island, when native communities lived there, the map looked the same.

And now, because we haven't been able to manage the problem of carbon pollution, we're going to have to redraw the map of Rhode Island. And a lot of memory, and a lot of economic value, and a lot of family homes and businesses are going to be lost to rising seas. And Freddie Mac warns that this is going to create actually an economic meltdown, as coastal property values crash, as coastal properties become harder to insure and harder to mortgage.

So the warnings are just deadly serious out there. And we need to get after it. I don't want to be the Senator who presided over the redrawing of the map of his own, already small enough state.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and perhaps that's why we've seen you so active on the issue and active with us today. I appreciate you coming on here to chat about it with us. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island. Thanks again for chatting.