Activists Lack the Leverage to Stop Manchin’s Side Deal As a Government Shutdown Looms

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WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) looks to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) after U.S. President Joe Biden signs The Inflation Reduction Act in the State Dining Room of the White House August 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. The $737 billion bill focuses on climate change, lower health care costs and creating clean energy jobs by enacting a 15% corporate minimum tax, a 1-percent fee on stock buybacks and enhancing IRS enforcement. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) isn’t known for taking risks. The centrist Democrat and former CIA officer famously chastised her progressive colleagues on a private conference call in 2020 after the party lost more than a dozen House seats to Republicans, narrowing its majority in Congress and leaving the newly elected President Joe Biden with a tougher landscape through which he could advance his agenda.

In the heated three-hour phone call, Spanberger blamed the party’s embrace of far-left leaning policies, including efforts to “defund the police,” for the election losses, and warned that Democrats risked getting “f—cking torn apart in 2022.”

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Spanberger, who narrowly won her own reelection that year, said during the call. “We lost good members because of that.”

Given her reputation as a moderate, it may have surprised some observers this week to see Spanberger side with those same progressives she ridiculed two years ago. In a letter signed by 77 House Democrats, and led by Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Spanberger joined some of her most liberal colleagues in urging party leaders to abandon a controversial plan that would force lawmakers to choose between preventing a government shutdown next month and overhauling the nation’s environmental review process for new energy projects.

As part of a deal struck with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, top Democrats say they’re moving forward with a plan this month that would streamline the permitting and environmental review process for energy projects, including for fossil fuel pipelines and export terminals. That includes attaching those reforms to a critical funding bill that Congress must pass by the end of the month to continue funding government programs and paying federal workers.

To win Manchin’s vote in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ sweeping spending bill and signature climate law, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other party leaders agreed to a series of concessions, many of which directly benefit the fossil fuel industry. That includes a handshake agreement with the West Virginia coal baron to reform parts of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, two bedrock national laws that dictate how the federal government determines if a proposed industrial project is a threat to human health or the environment.

Both Republicans and Manchin, who blocked President Joe Biden’s environmental agenda for more than a year and is the Democrats’ most conservative member, have complained for years that the environmental review processes of those laws are overly burdensome and harmful to the nation’s economy. But activists say weakening those laws, even a little, would endanger the environment and disproportionately harm low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that already bear the brunt of industrial pollution.

In recent weeks, climate and environmental justice activists have urged Democratic leaders to abandon the agreement with Manchin, dubbing it “the dirty pipeline deal.” Since mid-August, when Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, activists have flooded lawmakers’ phone lines with calls, blockaded their offices and sent them letters, including one signed by more than 650 environmental and community advocacy organizations.

In some ways, those actions appear to have had at least some impact, considering a moderate Democrat like Spanberger decided to join the group of 77 Democrats to oppose attaching the Manchin deal to this month’s stopgap bill.

“The inclusion of these provisions in a continuing resolution, or any other must-pass legislation, would silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “Such a move would force [party] members to choose between protecting [environmental justice] communities from further pollution or funding the government.”

But with Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaling in recent days that they’re moving forward with their plans on the Manchin deal, activists are struggling to find ways to stop it. “This was always a tough fight. We don’t have a lot of leverage,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told me in an interview. “The 72 or 77 Dems, if that’s where we’re at, is great. But it’s still not nearly enough.”

Passing a continuing resolution, known more colloquially as a stopgap bill, requires 60 votes in the Senate and 218 in the current House (a simple majority of the total 435 members). That means if the Manchin deal does get included in the stopgap bill, the 77 Democrats opposing the move would need 141 more votes to stop it in the House. They’d also need 41 votes in the Senate, and so far, only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive independent, has vocally opposed the plan.

In fact, Spanberger may be the only party member who signed onto this week’s letter because of mounting pressure from activists. As a moderate facing a contentious reelection in November, she likely doesn’t want to lose any constituents. Her office even released another letter that same day telling Democrat leaders to ensure they pass the stopgap bill, seemingly contradicting herself and highlighting the political balancing act Spanberger is performing ahead of the midterms.

But while progressives may not have the leverage to stop the Manchin deal, there is speculation that Republican opposition might. This week, several GOP members publicly voiced their opposition to the deal, saying the reforms Manchin laid out in a draft outline don’t go far enough. Several Republicans even introduced their own competing permitting reform legislation.

Still, it remains unclear how Republicans will ultimately vote. Manchin, at least, has remained optimistic that there will be enough bipartisan support to pass the stopgap bill and that the provisions he wants will be attached. Politicians very rarely allow the government to shut down. In the last 20 years, in fact, it has only happened four times.

As for Spanberger, when I asked her office how the congresswoman would vote if the side deal was included in the stopgap bill, the reply from her spokesperson did little to illuminate if she or other Democrats were willing to risk a government shutdown to thwart it.

“These initiatives backed by Rep. Spanberger are not exclusive. She continues to push Congress to fund the government as soon as possible, as the September 30 deadline is fast-approaching,” the prepared statement said. “Additionally, Rep. Spanberger has reservations about tying permitting reform to a continuing resolution, as indicated by her support for the letter sent to House leadership.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Marianne Lavelle contributed to this report.

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