US President Joe Biden’s signature $2trn Build Back Better bill, which partly aimed at reasserting US leadership on climate action, is “dead” and Democrats in Congress should start addressing other pressing national issues before trying to re-float a scaled back version, senator Joe Manchin, the key swing vote in the Senate, has claimed.
Asked Tuesday by US news outlet CNN as to whether he has had discussions on the legislation – which contains over $500bn in incentives for renewable energy and climate action, including incentives aimed at overcoming bottlenecks in development the offshore wind sector’s supply chain, port infrastructure, and transmission – the West Virginia Democrat said, “No, no, no. It’s dead.”
When pressed about supporting a smaller package, he added: “We’ll see what people come up with. I don’t know.”
In December, the politically moderate Manchin announced he would oppose the partisan mammoth bill as written after months of personal lobbying by Biden and intense pressure from the party’s ascendant left flank, effectively killing it in the evenly divided 100-seat Senate.
With Republicans against, Democrats with Biden’s support adopted a strategy to win passage with a simple majority of 51 using a legislative manoeuvre called ‘reconciliation’ instead of the usual 60 votes required for major bills.
That gambit hinged on support from all 50 Democratic senators and then-vice president Kamala Harris in her role as president of the Senate casting the deciding affirmative vote. In November, the House of Representatives where Democrats have a thin majority, narrowly passed its version of the bill.
Manchin expressed deep reservations about the cost and scope of the bill, which also seeks to revamp the country’s education, healthcare, immigration, and tax laws, even after it was downsized several times from the initial $3.5trn sought by Biden.
Instead of formulating a massive spending bill, he wants Congress and the White House to first develop a more effective national response to Covid-19, which has now claimed over 900,000 Americans’ lives, and take aggressive actions to slow inflation currently at a four-decade high.
Other priorities for Manchin include completing a bipartisan bill to meet an 18 February deadline to fund the federal government, bolstering American preparedness to confront increasingly assertive China and Russia, and focusing public attention on the fast-growing $30trn national debt.
On Monday, US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo, a member of Biden’s cabinet, said she was optimistic that Manchin will ultimately support a revised Build Back Better package. “I think we will get him. I think this is going to happen,” she told Politico.
Green industry tax credits
A key aspect of the original bill was to create new multi-year federal tax credits for battery storage, clean energy manufacturing, and transmission development, while extending and making those for wind and solar potentially more lucrative for projects that meet certain domestic content and labour requirements.
According to Biden, those incentives alone would have significantly advanced the US toward meeting its 2030 Paris pledge to achieve a 50-52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions.
It would do this partly by curbing utility sector emissions 80%, installing 30GW offshore wind capacity to replace baseload fossil-powered generation, and have electric vehicles making up half of new US automobile and truck sales.
Manchin has indicated willingness to support some, perhaps most, of the bill’s clean energy and climate provisions, although which ones remains unclear. West Virginia is the nation’s second largest coal producing state but is also attracting clean energy investment.
“I think that the climate thing is one that we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else,” Machin said recently, suggesting the social policy aspects of the bill that left-leaning progressives insist must remain could prove a major and possibly insurmountable obstacle – at least at the former price tag.
Biden is open to separating the climate provisions worth more than $500bn into a separate bill but the idea failed to win support from the Democratic leadership in either the House or Senate, who believe Build Back Better has a better chance of winning passage as a complete, albeit smaller package.
But that will likely require both making further concessions to Manchin, who is popular in his home state and not up for re-election until 2024. The window for getting a deal done is narrowing with Democrats fearing they will lose control of one or both chambers in Congress in November mid-term elections.
All 435 House members and 33 senators are up for re-election. Historically the ruling party usually loses seats in the mid-terms and those losses can be large when the president is deeply unpopular as Biden is with most Americans polled believing the country is headed in the wrong direction.