It’s Not Just Manchin

The 49 other Senate Democrats are making a reckless climate gamble too.

Senator Joe Manchin in profile
Samuel Corum / Bloomberg / Getty

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There is only one climate-change story that really matters in the United States right now. It is that, nearly a year after President Joe Biden took office, the Democratic Party has still not passed the great substance of its climate policy through Congress. Every day that goes by, the party takes another step toward political catastrophe and planetary misgovernance. Time is running out. By the end of the summer, the midterm campaigning season will begin in earnest and the window to pass major legislation will have closed.

It is really that simple. Given the United States’ importance in the global economy—it is the second-largest emitter of carbon pollution annually, and one of the planet’s biggest producers of oil and natural gas—its ability, or lack thereof, to pass climate policy will set the standard for the rest of the world.

The Biden administration’s climate plan, which is part of the Build Back Better Act, has stalled in Congress. Much of the blame has focused on Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the party’s linchpin vote in the Senate. Manchin, whose family owns a coal-trading company, has received more campaign donations from the fossil-fuel industry than any other member of Congress. Last month, he halted negotiations, announcing that he could no longer vote for Build Back Better, but many Democrats suspect that they will restart in some form.

The overwhelming focus on Manchin makes sense, because, as the bill’s loudest skeptic, he will influence its final shape immensely. But he does not command total sway over the bill, and he alone will not dictate its political fate: The rest of the Senate Democratic caucus will play a decisive role too. Forty-nine senators, none of them named Manchin, must vote for Build Back Better in order for it to pass. Lately, I have become more worried about their role than his.

In the lean years of the Trump presidency, climate advocates began to formulate a new theory of their case. For 30 years, they had beseeched Congress to pass climate policy. For 30 years, their efforts had failed. And yet climate policy had passed during that time: Congress had, among other initiatives, implemented tax credits for solar energy, wind power, and electric cars. The key was that this climate policy wasn’t announced as such, but was wrapped in a larger frame of economic improvement. Climate advocates, from the left to the center, seemed to coalesce around their next gambit: Like feeding a pill to a dog, you had to wrap climate policy in a delicious slice of infrastructure funding to get it down the legislative gullet.

They have such a package with Build Back Better. BBB is part education bill, part welfare reform, part climate bill. It was written like this partly because climate advocates wanted an infrastructure bill, but also because—conveniently—doing so would satisfy the vagaries of Senate procedure: In an effort to evade the filibuster and pass legislation through the Senate with their 50-vote majority, Democrats are using a mechanism called “reconciliation,” which can only be used in certain, limited instances (and only about once per fiscal year). As such, Democrats have crammed their entire policy agenda into the bill.

But it is very expensive to fit a party’s entire agenda into a single bill. Manchin has said that he cannot support a bill with more than $1.75 trillion of spending programs over 10 years, far less than the $3.5 trillion that Biden had initially hoped for. To trim down the bill, Democrats haven’t drastically limited their climate plans, but they’ve made their most ambitious social programs temporary instead of permanent. Some of the ensuing cutoffs seem rather arbitrary. The bill’s child-tax-credit extension, for instance, runs only through 2022; its health-care subsidies, through 2025; its funding for universal pre-K, through 2027.

Although Democrats did this to meet Manchin’s edict, he despises this approach. In his view, his fellow Democrats are engaged in legislative trickery: They plainly hope that a future Congress will choose to extend a popular program such as universal pre-K rather than let it run out. “Once you start doing something, it becomes ingrained,” he told Politico in September. Instead, Manchin has insisted on expansive cuts to the social side of the package, favoring a small number of permanently funded programs over the current grab bag of temporary authorities. Right before he stopped negotiations in December, he proposed a $1.8 trillion package that included money for universal pre-K and climate change but no child tax credit. That offer no longer seems to be on the table, according to The Washington Post. A pity. Democrats should have taken it.

That is because, in the days before Manchin stopped negotiations, he seemed to be coming to terms with his colleagues over climate policy. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, released draft text of portions of the bill. He has remained optimistic about the climate provisions too. “I think that the climate thing is one that we probably can come to agreement [on] much easier than anything else,” he said last week.

Manchin has a reputation as a fickle negotiator. And on climate issues, at least, this is earned: In the early summer, for instance, he tepidly supported a clean-electricity standard, but by October, he declared that he could not support such a policy in any form. Yet on the social policy in Build Back Better, he has made more or less the same demands for months—that Democrats choose a few policies and fund them permanently. Yet so far, Democrats have not just resisted Manchin’s demands. They have often seemed to ignore them.

And you can understand why—because, to satisfy Manchin’s mandate, the rest of the caucus must finally decide which of its policies to prioritize. Balancing the virtues of the child tax credit against those of universal pre-K against those of paid family leave will not be very fun. The party’s backbenchers—loyal soldiers who have put up with none of Manchin’s fuss—will have to watch their beloved proposals die. Can Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia live with a highly watered down child benefit? Can Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York support Build Back Better without a paid-leave plan? Can Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio live without the once-promised billions in public-housing money?

Yet failing to make the decision is even more unforgivable. If negotiations resume, the party could quickly face a situation in which it has an ambitious $500 billion climate package—and Manchin’s support—but not the social policy meant to accompany it.

Facing such a circumstance, the Democrats could respond in two ways. They could, first, move climate into its own reconciliation package and try to pass it alone. But this would turn into a legislative slog that would, by itself, devour months of the legislative calendar and focus the media’s attention squarely on some climate policies that the Biden administration would prefer to keep as part of a larger package. The second response could be to keep pushing on the current bill. Yet climate hawks face risks there too: The impasse over social policy might never be broken, leading the entire package to die. In the meantime, the longer that the Senate caucus takes to make a decision, the more time that Manchin has to change his mind about climate policy.

The greatest risk of all is that Democrats continue to procrastinate. It’s easier, after all, to wheedle Manchin than it is to pick a favorite among favorite proposals. What I fear is that Democrats will continue to avoid these wrenching choices until it is too late. They will decide by not deciding, and suddenly their entire domestic agenda will die before a midterm election in which they’re all but guaranteed to lose control of both chambers of Congress.

That would be most inconvenient for the millions of parents who could benefit from the child tax credit; it would be most cruel to the kids who would be nourished by universal pre-K. But it would be a cataclysmic failure for the climate, setting America’s energy transition back by a decade or more, and dooming the planet to warm well above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Because of how the Senate map disfavors the modern Democratic Party’s demographics, the party might not control Congress again until the 2030s. If the world hopes to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, then, by that time, half of new cars sold in the U.S. must be electric vehicles, and the country must generate most of its electricity from zero-carbon sources. That will be all but impossible without legislation. It is the Democrats’ choice to make.