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Will Climate Policy Survive This Congress?

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 8 min read

What’s being talked about on Capitol Hill is infrastructure and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. What’s currently being built, however, are ramparts in anticipation of the 2022 and 2024 federal election battles that I am confident will be “take no prisoners” affairs.

The brewing battles will not just be cross-aisle affairs. The Democratic left appears to be fixing to fight both Republicans and moderate Democrats for control of the nation’s policy agenda.

For a group that has shown remarkable restraint and support for House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and President Biden, it seems an odd time for the progressives to be digging in for a fight—let alone a one with members of their own caucus. So, why now?

It’s widely accepted that President Biden has an ever-shrinking window of opportunity to make his mark on the presidency. He’s promised generational change. he and the Democrats have very little to show for their efforts.

The memories of lawmakers and voters are notoriously short and narrow. It should come as no surprise then that the eternal question asked of all lawmakers is carved in stone above their entrance to the Capitol—WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?

OK, I got carried away for a moment. Ignore the bit about stone carving but trust me; the question is imprinted on the minds of every elected lawmaker.

Should the Democrats fail to get either or both the infrastructure and reconciliation bills through Congress and on President Biden’s desk for signature in the next 90 days, they’ll have a hard time convincing voters next November their lives have been made better by this president and his party. They have their work cut out for them.

A lot has been written about Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) being the lone holdouts on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that includes most of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Together provisions in the reconciliation bill, e.g., extending renewable energy tax credits, and the infrastructure bill, e.g., building out electric vehicle charging network, make good on Biden’s campaign promises.

To avoid being filibustered, its incumbent on the Democrats to cram as much into the reconciliation package as possible. Even at that, the Senate Parliamentarian may have qualms about what’s in the package. What’s not included is unlikely to ever be passed—unless, of course, they do well in 2022.

The real story—at least the one liberals believe is the most accurate—is that the future for Democrats is not centrist but leftist. As Representative Pramilia Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus CPC), explains, this [the reconciliation bill] isn’t a moderate versus progressive conversation; it’s a 96 percent versus 4 percent conversation.

Where does she get her numbers? The CPC has 100 members, while the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, at best, numbers 19. Representative Jayapal is also referring to the numbers of constituents the progressives represent versus the numbers Manchin and Sinema represent. The total population of West Virginia is just over 20 percent of New York City.

Jayapal’s math may be a bit sketchy, but the sentiment is right. There are legitimate questions to be asked of the two Senate holdouts.

  • Is it fair for them to ignore that voter surveys show consistent support for the climate provisions in Biden’s Build Back Better Plan? (Figure 1)
  • Is it right for them to keep the nation on a steady diet of fossil fuels when the horrible health and environmental consequences of their use are known with scientific certainty?

Both West Virginia and Arizona will be hard hit by climate change. The Southwest is already having to deal with drought. It’s expected to get worse. West Virginia’s rivers and valleys may be beautiful but they are also deadly when hit by torrential rains.


I don’t think there’s a real question about the precarious position of moderate Democrats like Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) or Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-GA). Bourdeaux was the only Democrat to flip a House seat from red to blue in the 2020 election.

Good arguments in support of Jayapal’s adamancy exist. History is not on the side of a sitting president’s party in midterm elections. Biden knows this from experience, as the Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate spots in the midterm elections following Obama’s victory.

It may be that whatever the Democrats do, they’ll still lose control of either the House or Senate. In which case, it is critically important to get done anything and everything they can within the next few weeks using the reconciliation process.

The 2010 elections were none too kind to the Republican establishment. The rise of the Tea Party was the beginning of a period that saw two Republican House Speakers—Boehner and Ryan—choose retirement over re-election. Why? Because of the gridlock caused by far-right conservatives whose agenda is not governance but obstinance.

Trump left the building, not the Party. Today Republicans in office or those aspiring to one are measured against the former president’s standards. Those voting to impeach him or unwilling to back his play for a 2020 recount are declared persona non grata or primaried by candidates backed by Trump.

It’s been nearly a year since the election, and Steve Scalise (R-LA), the number 2 Republican in the House, can’t bring himself to admit Trump lost a fair election. Senator Grassley (R), an Iowa institution in his own right after seven terms as US Senator, recently declared both his intention to seek an eighth term and his loyalty to Trump.

In his own words:

If I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.

But, evidently not smart enough to recognize the threat to the republic of believing the lies of petulant leaders that attack the very heart of its existence —free and fair elections.

After seven terms, I would have thought a senator would feel secure in his own electability. In any event, when does country take precedence over self-interest?

Boehner believes the Democrats will soon experience their own Tea Party moment as far-left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jayapal, Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Mondaire Jones (D-NY), and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) gain seniority and the leadership positions that go with it.

For there to be any chance of the Democrats beating the odds of a midterm election loss, it will be due to voter turnout. Enthusiasm and passion are valued commodities, particularly in off-year elections.

Biden understood their progressives value in the 2020 election. Speaker Pelosi understands their importance now. I believe this is a significant reason for their support of an aggressive climate action plan. There is no little irony in the fact that it’s the Democratic left that is championing the policies of a moderate Democratic president and Speaker of the House of Representatives against their more moderate colleagues.

There’s no question that the final reconciliation package will be less than $3.5 trillion. Speaker Pelosi has sent a Dear Colleague note to her caucus stating it to be the case.

Does this mean that Senators Manchin and Sinema have won the day? No—not as long as the progressives keep their place at the negotiating table and continue to hold out on the infrastructure package.

Climate champions must understand the persistence of the liberals to keep the infrastructure and reconciliation bills joined at the hip. Manchin and Sinema continue to be coy about what they are willing to accept in the Build Back Better package.

The pair take great pride in the bipartisan infrastructure plan they helped negotiate. They too will have to tell their constituents what they’ve done for them lately. The infrastructure package is being held hostage because that and their reputations as centrist negotiators are the only skin they have in the game.

They may of course believe they’ll be able to pass the blame for any failures off to the liberals. It’s risk they may wish to take. In any event, they cannot be allowed to dictate the terms of an agreement—especially by just saying no to everything.

It’s worth repeating Jayapal’s framing of the issue. The intra-party conflict is not a battle between conservative and liberal ideologies. It is a clash between 268 congressional democratic colleagues and two outlier senators and their own narrow interests.

Everyone understands that the final reconciliation package will be below the $3.5 trillion currently being bandied about. Speaker Pelosi just tweeted her caucus explaining that the overwhelming guidance she’s receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis.

Therefore, the questions still to be answered are which programs, and at what price, will climate be included in the final reconciliation package? Given the priority the Democratic left places on combatting Earth’s warming, the final reconciliation package will keep climate policies in the final mix at meaningful budget levels.

There is another reason I’m confident Speaker Pelosi won’t let climate policies be thrown under the bus. This battle is likely Pelosi’s last hurrah. The Senate denied her once before when Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to bring the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill onto the floor for a vote.

I am confident that Madame Speaker will do all in her considerable power to leave a legacy that includes aggressive federal climate policies. To be on the safe side of history, however, it will need to be done ahead before Christmas.

SEO: Speaker Pelosi has just alerted her caucus to the reality that the President's $3.5 trillion Build Back Better act will have to come in at a lower number. In the past climate policies were traded away to make room for other issues. Will it happen again?

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.

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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.

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