What’s Next for Biden’s Build Back Better Act?
Well, it finally happened. An infrastructure bill has found its way onto a president’s desk for signing. Affectionately called the BIF in the halls of Congress and along the K Street corridor where the cognoscenti congregate, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework was truly that—bipartisan.
The $1.2 trillion bill was passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. The vote was 69 yeas and 30 nays. If that wasn’t proof enough of bipartisanship, there’s the House vote to consider.
After months of squabbles within the Democratic ranks, the BIF passed by a vote of 226 to 206. The kicker in this is it passed thanks to the 13 House Republicans who dared cross the aisle—negating the “no” votes of the six progressive Democrats who voted against it with enough left over to win the day.
Republicans in both chambers willing to work with the Democrats to get something done are risking reprisals from former President Trump and a hit-squad of some ultra-Trumpers, including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Both Green and Trump have pledged to primary the 13.
Shortly after the vote, Greene tweeted:
These are the 13 “Republicans” who handed over their voting cards to Nancy Pelosi to pass Joe Biden’s Communist takeover of America via so-called infrastructure.
Greene posted the names and office phones of the offending members. For those not familiar with Ms. Greene, her comments have been so severely offensive and false that she was stripped of her committee assignments by a vote of the House. Her daring-do, however, has kept her in Trump’s good graces.
The six progressive House Democrats who stood in opposition to the bill were sending a message and a warning. As I’ve written before, Speaker Pelosi and the hundred or so members of the House Progressive Caucus and those in the Senate were leery about letting the infrastructure bill be decoupled from the larger, more climate attentive budget reconciliation package, which is also referred to as the Build Back Better Act.
The funds for most of Biden’s promised social safety net measures, e.g., child care and expanding Medicare to include hearing, are also accounted for in the budget bill.
Internal haggling between progressives and conservative Blue Dogs has already cut the proposed $3.5 trillion price tag nearly in half. Regrettably, the one policy that would have made the greatest difference in terms of CO2 emissions—the national clean electric standard—was one of the first programs jettisoned.
The bill is said to still include credits for solar, wind, and electric vehicles—at least for the moment. However, several news outlets are suggesting that Manchin has also indicated his opposition to any incentives and subsidies for electric vehicles. It would be consistent with other statements the coal-state Senator has made.
The two leading Blue Dogs on Capitol Hill are Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ). Individually and in consort, the pair they’ve proven to be a wrecking ball to the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills. The pair have shown themselves a wrecking ball having hacked tens of billions of dollars from Biden’s original proposals that were already below what Senators Sanders (I-VT), Markey (D-MA), the 100-strong (House) Congressional Progressive Caucus members and others had put forward.
Sinema, in particular, spent a lot of time and effort brokering the BIF. Most every member of the upper chamber knew the political importance of repairing bridges, replacing lead water pipes, and providing broadband access to rural areas. The importance of the bill to all jurisdictions was spoken to by the 19 Senate Republicans that chose to ignore what Donald J. Trump said he would do to them.
It wasn’t just the radical Senate Republicans like Collins, Romney, and Murkowski voting for the bill. Senate Minority Leader McConnell—himself—voted in favor of the bill. He did so, I’m told, very quietly.
Joining the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills was a legislative maneuver to force the two Blue Dogs to vote for the budget reconciliation bill. It’s a quid pro quo sort of thing.
Manchin and Sinema are in the catbird’s seat now only because of the tenuous hold the Democrats have on Congress. It’s a hold that’s likely to lose its grip after the 2022 midterm elections. Facing a probable loss next November—no matter what they do—is prompting Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden to fight for a more progressive agenda than they might otherwise.
Even casual observers can see that politics in Capital City has turned into a bitter battle between and within the parties. It’s being made all the more acidic by the ongoing congressional investigation of the January 6 uprising of Trump supporters on the Capitol.
Clearly, the Biden era is falling short of the promised return to what passed for normalcy in Washington—back in the day. It gets harder by the day even to remember when common courtesy was practiced—let alone bipartisan cooperation. It’s what made the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill newsworthy.
What federal dysfunction and warfare within and between the parties mean for climate policy and the transition to a low carbon economy is what it always means—major advancements will rely on state and local actions, e.g., cities and counties. Proximity to the consequences of climate change is a powerful inducement for action.
There were 800 attendees at the signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill, many from cities and states. It was a markedly different gang than those who attended Trump’s signing ceremonies. There was no call to lock anyone up; no one appeared to be packing a gun or wearing a MAGA hat. Republicans and Democrats attending seemed to keep no more distance between each other than is required by the Centers for Disease Control.
The fate of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills is the fate of federal climate policies—possibly for the rest of the 2020s. The onus for combatting climate change, therefore, continues to fall back to states and cities. Many of whom were among the 800.
Should the Republicans take back either chamber of Congress in 2022, it will mean conflict and gridlock. Should Trump or any Trump-approved presidential candidate be elected and either or both chambers in 2024 go Republican—well..you know what comes next.
Under any political scenario, there will be continued contentiousness between Sinema, Manchin, and Democratic progressives. Things are far from fatal, however.
The infrastructure bill allocated nearly $50 billion for climate resilience. The funds were in recognition that the consequences of Earth’s warming are already here and will get worse. The real bucks—550 billion of them—are in the budget reconciliation package.
There is a good chance Congress will vote favorably on some version of the climate provisions of the budget package. Now that the infrastructure bill isn’t hogging the limelight, voters will have a better chance to understand its provisions—most of which voters show favor for when described individually.
Given all that’s going on, the Biden administration has two climate-related priorities. The first is to keep in the final reconciliation (Build Back Better) as much of the $550 billion Biden proposed for climate matters, e.g., investment and production clean energy tax credits and tax rebates for electric vehicles.
The second is to obligate as much of that money as possible at the front end, especially to support the work of regional, state, and local governments. Obligating the funds will make it harder for a Congress or president who still deny that climate change is a crisis worthy of response.
And finally, I happened to overhear a discussion between two mayors who must have been in town for the signing ceremony—one a Democrat the other a Republican. Beyond the good-natured bantering, both agreed they had plenty of shovel-ready BIF projects already teed up waiting for the money to show up.
It was the second comment that made me most hopeful—in a sort of backwards way. The mayors commented on how palpable and hostile the tension is here in Capital City. Both, however, seemed to suggest that in their states the partisanship wasn’t so deeply rooted that it would get in the way of positive actions.
Time will tell whether this is true or not—and, so will I.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.