Time waits for no-one. And, when it comes to the US environmental agenda, no-one can be hearing the clock ticking louder than US President Joe Biden, who has six weeks and counting to get a slimmed-down version of legislation critical to his ambitious national climate action plans through Congress before members recess and later turn their attention to re-election in November .
It won’t be easy and the stakes are high. This is likely Biden’s last chance to get significant traction on addressing the climate crisis that is crafted exclusively by his administration and party and in the process get US leadership on global climate action – a central focus of his presidency – back on track.
Early polls show Democrats will lose control of one or both houses of Congress in mid-term elections, an outcome that would reset the balance of power in Washington for Biden’s remaining two years in office.
Having Democrats in the minority in the House of Representatives and/or Senate would constrain the US president’s ability to proactively advance the country down a path to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement pledge to slash greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% from 2005 levels.
“There is still hope we can get something across the finish line but not a ton of time is left,” said Mike Williams, senior fellow, at the Center for American Progress, the leading progressive Democratic think tank in Washington, DC.
“In an election year, it is well-known that the August recess is pretty much the drop-dead time for legislation before the end of Congress. The odds of coming back post-August recess and getting meaty things done between then and the election are low historically,” he said.
With Biden’s approval rating lower than any US president of the modern era at this stage of their term and 70% of Americans believing the country is moving ‘in the wrong direction’, the political momentum clearly favours the Republicans.
The GOP has no incentive to help an unpopular leader struggling with crises on multiple fronts pass a potentially large partisan spending bill they believe would further stoke 40-year-high inflation – currently the number one concern of US voters.
While many, perhaps most, Republicans reject Biden’s contention that climate change is an “existential threat” to US national security, some are open to bipartisan measures that address its more pronounced economic, environmental, and health impacts.
There is still hope we can get something across the finish line but not a ton of time is left
Mike Williams, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress
A case in point was last year’s $1trn infrastructure law, the first significant US investment in climate resilience and a rare, high-profile political win for Biden.
Yet, it is Biden’s open hostility toward the oil and gas industry and his stated policy aim to “get rid of fossil fuels” that limits cooperation with Republicans who favour an all-of-the-above approach with energy.
In their view, it is Biden that is artificially creating a national security risk by pushing the energy transition too fast with an overly rosy narrative that the US can replace conventional fuels and thermal resources with relative ease and expense.
Senate 'reconciliation' challenge
Complicating any push on climate by Biden is the fast-approaching end of the federal fiscal year on 30 September that will close the window for Democrats in the evenly divided 100 seat Senate to use a special parliamentary procedure called reconciliation to pass major legislation.
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.
Reconciliation bills can deal with spending, revenue, and the federal debt limit, and the Senate can pass one bill per year affecting each subject. Policy changes that are extraneous to the budget are limited.
In the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a 220-209 majority , the procedure also applies but has minor significance as there is no supermajority requirement.
Last December, Democrats sought to use reconciliation to move the $1.75trn Build Back Better bill, half the size of Biden’s original climate and social spending proposal. The House had passed its version the previous month on a party-line vote.
The manoeuvre collapsed in spectacular fashion after Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat and swing vote, announced his opposition citing reservations about the cost and potential inflationary impacts.
Build Back Better contained about $550bn in climate-related funding including $350bn in new or extended multi-year clean energy-related tax credits, about six times as much as the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the nation’s largest clean energy investment to date.
Biden spent much of last year in a failed effort to reconcile differences within his party after veering left and embracing progressives’ free spending approach for the federal government to address national problems including climate.
Biden’s calculus to abandon the political centre was part hubris: he had beaten incumbent President Donald Trump in an election and in his view, saved American democracy and the environment.
Perhaps misreading his mandate, Biden began envisioning himself as possibly another Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic Party icon - the right leader at the right time to pilot the country through a national emergency with transformative domestic policies that would positively change its course for generations.
After 36 years in the Senate and eight more as vice president, Biden also felt he knew how to use the levers of power and leverage personal relationships better than anyone in the nation’s capital and would get what he wanted from both Democrats and centrist Republicans. That assumption proved largely inaccurate.
“Going big,” as he called it, seemed to Biden and his advisers at the time to be the best strategy to tackle climate, Covid-19, and other pressing issues – even more so with Democrats in control of Congress, albeit with thin majorities. Whatever the perceived merits then, doing less now makes more sense politically for Biden, said policy experts.
Analysis by independent researcher Rhodium Group showed that passage of both the infrastructure law and Build Back Better (as then written) was critical to the US achieving the interim 2030 emissions goal.
Rhodium’s Pathways to Paris argued that measures in both packages could enable and speed up clean technology deployment and on their own cut emissions significantly. As well, they could also reduce consumer and compliance costs of federal and state actions, and when combined with congressional actions, “put the target within reach”.
Without the cost reduction assistance of congressional actions, federal and state leaders will face higher technical and political hurdles as they pursue the ambitious policies necessary for Paris compliance, according to the analysis.
Smaller bill possible?
Climate this year has taken a back seat to mounting challenges that are threatening to submerge Biden’s administration. Soaring food and fuel prices. Supply chain congestion. A wave of nationwide gun violence. Runaway illegal immigration along the southern border. Hundreds of Americans dying each day from a virus in Covid-19 that has already claimed more than 1 million lives. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The biggest issue we are seeing with climate legislation is there is a lot of competing priorities,” said Aaron Barr, principal consultant at Wood Mackenzie, speaking at a conference last month. “So many things are taking air out of the room that makes it difficult to pass legislation.”
Even Build Back Better, etched in the public mind with signature policy failure by Biden and Democrats in Congress, no longer exists in name. The White House has now recast it as Building a Better America.
“I think it really hinges on can a deal around a smaller reconciliation bill get put together in the next month or two,” said Sasha Mackler, energy programme director at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC, a think-tank focused on bipartisan policy solutions.
“It has to be smaller because of inflationary pressures and this desire to focus the bill on a couple of issues where there is broad support and a need for legislation,” he added, noting that all party factions could embrace about $300bn in 10-year clean energy-related tax credits.
Whether moderate and progressive Democrats can compromise over the cost, language, and scope of any new bill remains to be seen. After giving a grim judgment of prospects for a climate bill, Manchin now says publicly he will support the tax credits if half the revenue raised from taxes goes to reduce the federal deficit.
In May, he told Axios that his early talks with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer on Building a Better America were “encouraging to a certain extent”, but added, “There could be truly nothing. That’s all I can tell you.”
As a candidate, Biden vowed to hold Congress “accountable if it falls short of its duty to act on climate”. If Democrats stumble again in progressing their climate agenda that ambiguous pledge to make the independent legislative branch of government somehow answerable to the executive will continue to be politically toxic for the 46th US president.