Holy Shit, Democrats Might Actually Pass a Climate Change Bill

President Joe Biden was apparently sidelined during the secret negotiations.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, speaks to members of the media prior to a hearing in Washington, D.C., US, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, speaks to members of the media prior to a hearing in Washington, D.C., US, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.  Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So maybe we’re not just going to hurtle headlong into a fiery climate doom without the U.S. government lifting a finger to save us, after all. 

Senate Democrats shocked Washington D.C. and climate activists by unveiling plans for the largest climate investment in U.S. history this week. The talks were so secret, and the announcement so unexpected, that it prompted one Democratic senator into a profane outburst of surprise. 

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“Holy shit,” tweeted Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, a vocal climate advocate who declared herself “stunned, but in a good way.” 

The announcement brings U.S. climate policy dramatically back from the dead, after seemingly everyone thought it had been killed and buried by the Senate’s most-infamous coal baron, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a few short weeks ago. 

But the drama is far from over. Democrats now appear to have a matter of days or weeks, with no room for error, to secure the country’s most ambitious climate rescue plan ever before the window for legislative action closes ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. A monthlong summer Senate recess is scheduled to start on Aug. 8, after which Congress traditionally fails to get much done. 

“This is a big deal,” Jamal Raad, co-founder of the climate nonprofit Evergreen Action, told VICE News. “We should be excited. These are truly transformative investments that can put us on the path to our international climate commitments and our environmental justice commitments. It’s significant.”

Manchin and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer negotiated the new $369 billion climate plan in near-total secrecy, inserting the provision into a broader plan that also raises taxes on corporations and lets the government negotiate prices for prescription drugs. Manchin said Democratic President Joe Biden wasn’t even involved in the talks—telling reporters Thursday that Biden’s involvement might have just screwed everything up.  

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Climate advocates were left in a state of dazed whiplash Thursday, and said they continue to pore over the details. But their initial reaction was praise.

The fact that the plan relies primarily on tax credits and subsidies, rather than penalties, makes it politically more palatable than past efforts, said Paul Bledsoe, who served as a climate advisor to former President Bill Clinton. 

That makes it harder for Republicans to torpedo the plan later when they regain power, he said.  

“The really big picture here is that the Democrats finally came up with a politically popular climate policy,” Bledsoe, who is now with the Progressive Policy Institute, told VICE News. “These tax credits poll very well.”

Some climate activists said they support the Manchin-Schumer deal, even though it’s not enough. 

“Let’s be clear: this bill isn’t the Green New Deal,” the Sunrise Movement, one of the most powerful youth-led climate advocacy organizations in the U.S., wrote on Twitter. “This is the Manchin Climate Plan.” 

Still, Sunrise called for “the strongest possible version of this bill must pass immediately.”

The plan centers around tens of billions of dollars worth of tax cuts and subsidies for a wide range of clean-energy investments and initiatives, including tax credits for new and used electric vehicles, funds for decarbonizing heavy industry, and subsidies for households to buy climate-friendly heat pumps and rooftop solar panels along with other programs.  

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Schumer and Manchin claim the plan will cut U.S. emissions by 40 percent compared to 2005 levels by the year 2030, which, if true, would be more than two-thirds of the way to Biden’s much-hyped goal of a 50 percent reduction this decade. 

Independent observers called the Democratic senators’ forecast plausible.  

“It looks like the estimate from Senator Schumer’s office that this will take U.S. [emissions] to about 40 percent below 2005 levels is accurate,” Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton engineering professor who specializes in running estimates of the impact of climate policy on emissions, told The Atlantic. “That’s huge.”

The $370 billion climate package is smaller than the $555 billion climate spending originally proposed by Democrats as part of the now-defunct Build Back Better plan, which passed the House only to be blocked by Manchin. Still, the total package is four times the size of the previous record climate spending initiative, which allocated $90 billion to green investments in a plan approved under former President Barack Obama

The plan still faces important hurdles—notably from Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has not yet said whether she will support it. In the past, Sinema has said she opposes ending the carried-interest tax loophole that delivers large benefits to hedge fund managers—a position that puts her at odds with most other Democrats. Manchin made ending that tax perk a key piece of his proposal, and reiterated in a call with reporters on Thursday morning that he does not want to cut it out. 

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Manchin didn’t work with Sinema to develop the plan, he told reporters.  

Sinema is “reviewing the text and will need to review what comes out of the parliamentarian process,” her spokesperson, Hannah Hurley, told Bloomberg on Thursday

Democrats are hoping to smash the plan through Congress using a procedure known as “reconciliation,” which allows them to pass the plan with only the 50 Senate votes they currently have, plus Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker. 

But even if all Democrats favor the plan, they’ve still got to all be well enough to show up in the chamber to vote. That could be a problem, because positive COVID cases have been rippling through the Democratic caucus and forcing much-needed senators to self-isolate. 

Manchin himself is recovering from his own case of COVID, and his press briefing to reporters on Thursday morning was interrupted in the middle by a coughing fit. 

Manchin said he’s hoping the plan can be moved through the Senate by Aug. 6, before the upcoming recess. 

In a closed door meeting on Thursday morning, Schumer urged his Democrats to stay focused and attempt to pass the plan within the next two weeks.

“It will require us to stick together and work long days and nights for the next 10 days,” Schumer told Democratic Senators, a Democrat who was in the room told VICE News. “We will need to be disciplined in our messaging and focus. It will be hard.  But I believe we can get this done.”

Follow Greg Walters on Twitter.