President Joe Biden vowed to take “strong executive action” on climate change after coal-state Democrat Joe Manchin derailed their party's efforts to pass a bill with more than $300bn in multi-year tax incentives for clean energy.
It was likely Biden’s last chance to win passage of legislation that significantly advances his ambitious climate agenda, crafted by his administration and with Democrats in control of Congress and, in the process, get US leadership on global climate action – a central focus of his presidency – back on track.
The climate provisions were a key part of his strategy to place the US firmly on track to comply with its Paris Agreement pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% by 2030 from 2005 levels.
If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment.
“So let me be clear: if the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” he said in a written statement on Friday.
Biden later told reporters he would use “every power I have as president to continue to fulfill my pledge to move toward dealing with global warming”. He did not provide details or a timetable to act.
Executive orders or administrative actions by executive branch agencies and departments are not a strong substitute for laws as they can be more easily revoked, modified, or superseded by the next president, Congress, or declared illegal or unconstitutional by courts.
They can, however, be a quick way to enact federal policy and many can remain in place during a large part of a president’s four-year term in office.
Manchin withheld his support for the climate provisions and proposed new taxes in the bill, expressing concerns that more federal spending amid record deficits would further stoke inflation, now at a 41-year high in the US.
“Inflation is absolutely killing many, many people. They can’t buy gasoline. They have a hard time buying groceries,” said Manchin.
“Everything they buy and consume for their daily lives is a hardship to them. Can’t we wait to make sure we do nothing to add to that?”
He said he would commit to further negotiations on climate, potential tax policy changes, and other issues after lawmakers return from summer recess in September but would support them only after seeing clear signs that inflation was in retreat.
"I would not put my staff through this — I would not put myself through this — if I wasn't sincere about trying to find a pathway forward to do something that's good for our country," he said.
'President's agenda sabotaged'
Progressive Democratic and independent lawmakers claimed West Virginia senator Manchin can't be trusted.
“He has sabotaged the President’s agenda,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent on ABC’s This Week.
“The problem was that we continued to talk to Manchin like he was serious. He was not.”
Unlike in December, when he rejected Biden’s entire flagship $1.75bn Build Back Better legislation that included $555bn for climate, Manchin said he would back funding in the present bill to extend a government health insurance programme and lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Manchin, a political moderate in a party whose leaders in Congress are mostly left-of-centre, is the swing vote in the evenly divided 100-seat Senate in position to decide whether major legislation can pass using a special parliamentary procedure called reconciliation. All 50 Republicans opposed both Build Back Better and the present bill.
A reconciliation bill that expedited certain budgetary legislation could pass with a party-line majority of 50 votes plus an affirmative tie-breaking vote cast by US Vice President Kamala Harris in her capacity as president of the Senate. The procedure overrides filibuster rules that may otherwise require a supermajority of 60 votes.
With Congress in recess in August, Democrats are racing the clock with the end of the federal fiscal year on 30 September that will close the window to use reconciliation. Getting the party in line for any renewed legislative push will be difficult with most lawmakers up for reelection in November and out on the campaign trail with constituents.