The Senate’s Two-Track Approach Reveals Little Bipartisanship, and a Fragile Democratic Consensus on Climate

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill showed that some Senate Republicans might support cleaning up climate-driven disasters, but none are eager to deal with what causes them.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) arrives at the Capitol Building on Aug. 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) arrives at the Capitol Building on Aug. 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

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The U.S. Senate showed this week just how narrow the ground is for bipartisanship on climate change in the nation’s current political landscape.

In passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package and launching the process of building a $3.5 trillion spending package, Senate Democrats were able to unite and garner 20 Republican votes for fending off or cleaning up disasters generated by global warming. But they could not do the same for attacking the root cause of climate change with measures that would aggressively reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Democrats are still determined to take on the larger project of transforming U.S. energy, but they will have to take on the monumental task of driving down greenhouse gas emissions without any Republican support and a fragile consensus on how to do it within their own party. 


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The central challenge climate action advocates face in Congress this session often has been framed as one of holding on to the vote of a single fossil fuel state Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But while Manchin’s role as a potential spoiler undeniably looms large, the 30-hour marathon voting session that ended early Wednesday showed that there are a handful of other Democrats who also could rein in the ambitions of any climate legislation. The Senate voted on Tuesday in favor of a budget amendment that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from writing any rules banning fracking. Democratic Senators from Colorado, Pennsylvania and Montana, as well as Independent Angus King of Maine, joined Republicans in the 57-42 vote.

The pro-fracking amendment—like all others considered in the so-called budget reconciliation “vote-a-rama”—is non-binding, since it is attached only to an outline of the spending plan, with the details to be hammered out in the coming weeks and final votes after Sept. 15. But the vote sends a clear signal that a “keep-it-in-the-ground” policy on fossil fuels won’t fly in this Senate. Nevertheless, the Biden administration and its Democratic allies in Congress are optimistic they are on the verge of enacting landmark legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“At a time when California is on fire, when Oregon is on fire, when Greece is burning, and when countries throughout the world are experiencing unprecedented drought, which will clearly impact food production, this legislation begins the process of combating climate change so that our kids and grandchildren can live in a country and a planet which is healthy and habitable,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders, a former presidential candidate, was the bill floor manager through a session of votes on more than 40 amendments before the final 50-49 decision at 3:51 a.m. to move forward with the giant spending package that will contain the main pillars of the Biden climate agenda.

‘The Most Significant Legislation to Tackle Climate Change in U.S. History’

The outline of the budget plan Senate Democrats released on Monday is heavy on incentives to spur the growth of clean energy. In part, that’s because to conform to the special rules allowing them to pass the measure with just a bare majority, Democrats have to make sure that each provision involves spending or revenue. In terms of policy, that means carrots and sticks.

For example, the Senate Energy Committee—chaired by Manchin—will have the task of developing what many see as Biden’s most powerful potential tool for tackling the climate crisis: a national clean electricity standard. But it wouldn’t work like the renewable and clean electricity standards already in place in 30 states, in which utilities earn and trade “credits” for meeting increasingly stringent targets for deploying cleaner electricity sources. Instead, it would be a “Clean Electricity Payment Program,” in which utilities would get payments from the federal government for meeting targets, and presumably, could face penalties for failing to do so.

No one has produced a public analysis estimating how much money such a program would cost, but Manchin’s committee will have a total of $198 billion to allocate to the Clean Electricity Payment Program as well as other climate measures, including consumer rebates to weatherize and electrify homes; financing for domestic manufacturing of clean energy technologies and federal procurement of energy efficient materials.

The Democrats have not included a carbon tax in their budget framework, but there are a number of ways the fossil fuel industry may help to foot the bill of the new spending on climate action. The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), already has advanced legislation, now expected to be folded into the budget package, that would eliminate subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. The non-partisan Environmental and Energy Study Institute has estimated that federal support for the fossil fuel industry totals $20 billion per year, with 80 percent going toward oil and gas.

Wyden’s committee also has been tasked with considering a possible “Carbon Polluter Import Fee,” a measure also known as a carbon border tax. Such a plan would in effect put tariffs on imports from countries that have given their manufacturers an unfair advantage of uncontrolled carbon emissions. Such an idea has support in the industry, labor and environmental communities, but it is not likely to pass muster under World Trade Organization rules unless the United States is reining in carbon emissions from its own manufacturers, as well. Some experts think U.S. businesses could face countervailing duties under a U.S. carbon border adjustment that is not coupled with a domestic carbon tax.

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The budget framework does call for lawmakers to develop a fee for the potent greenhouse gas methane. Presumably, it would target the methane that leaks from oil and gas operations, which studies have shown is a significant contributor to U.S. emissions. It is not clear if such a fee would address another significant source of methane from another key industry: agriculture.

Biden’s plan to revive a New Deal idea to tackle climate change—a $10 billion Civilian Climate Corps—will be divided up among the Senate agriculture, labor and Indian Affairs committees, presumably to ensure that the work program is deployed in both rural and urban settings, as well as on Native American lands. The non-profit group Evergreen Action has estimated that such a program could generate 1.5 million jobs helping communities with resilience, restoration and climate preparedness programs.

The bill is also expected to overhaul renewable energy tax incentives, build a nationwide electric vehicle charging network and deploy investments to advance environmental justice.

“The Senate just opened the door to passing the most significant legislation to tackle climate change in United States history,” said Dan Lashof, U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, after the vote on the budget resolution.

Lashof, like most climate advocates, viewed the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed earlier as inadequate to address the crisis facing the nation and the world. It spends billions on measures that address wildfire—like tree thinning, forest management and increasing pay for firefighters—and for addressing drought, coastal resilience and flooding. But the measures to reduce fossil fuel emissions were carefully counterbalanced with provisions beneficial to the fossil fuels industry. 

For example, although the bipartisan legislation contained a record $39 billion investment in public transit, it was wrapped in a package that spent nearly three times as much—$110 billion—on highways and bridges. And while there’s a $16 billion investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy in the infrastructure bill, there’s even more spending that benefits fossil fuel interests, including $10 billion on carbon capture and storage and $8 billion on hydrogen (which is currently generated primarily from natural gas). 

The Senate was able to get bipartisan support for a $5 billion “clean school bus” program, as long as up to half of that money could be used to fund buses that run on natural gas, propane, hydrogen or biofuel.

Republicans who were willing to vote for the infrastructure package—including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—remained steadfast in their opposition to the Democrats move to advance a more ambitious climate package through the use of the budget process. McConnell called it “a reckless taxing and spending spree that was authored by our self-described socialist colleague, Chairman Sanders.”

McConnell and a number of his GOP colleagues gleefully repeated a remark that Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) made on MSNBC this week: that the Green New Deal is “in the DNA” of the budget resolution. Opposition to a Green New Deal has become dogma in the Republican party, even though surveys showed the idea of a federally funded jobs and climate plan had strong bipartisan support before months of negative coverage by Fox News.

And even though the budget bill the Democrats are assembling is a federally funded jobs and climate plan, they voted unanimously with all the Republicans, 99-0, in favor of a GOP amendment prohibiting enactment of a Green New Deal. “As a supporter of the Green New Deal, I have no problem voting for this amendment,” said Sanders. The budget bill “has nothing to do with the Green New Deal.”

On a week when the world’s climate scientists delivered their most dire warning yet on the risks of dangerous warming without drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in the U.S. Senate, even the climate advocates have to show that they’re not going too far.