Leading congressional Democrats pledged on Wednesday that the forthcoming budget and infrastructure bills will meet President Biden’s goal of putting the country on a path to halving its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
“We will put together a package that matches the magnitude of this threat,” said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Speaking in front of the U.S. Capitol, several members of Congress invoked the U.N. Climate Change Conference, which begins at the end of this month in Glasgow, Scotland, to underscore the importance of passing ambitious climate change legislation right away.
Biden “will go there with great pride because we will pass legislation that enables him to not only meet but beat our goals,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised.
Demonstrating the U.S. commitment to cutting emissions that cause climate change is key to giving Biden leverage to cajole other large emitters such as China into making bigger pledges of their own.
“The Senate must put together a climate package that is something that Joe Biden can say to the rest of the world that we are the leaders and not the laggers, because you cannot preach temperance from a barstool,” Markey said. “You cannot tell the rest of the world what to do if you as a country are not doing it yourselves.”
“For the first time in a decade, we have the chance to take climate action and put Americans to work building electric cars, expanding and upgrading the electrical grid, making electricity cheaper for families and businesses across America,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, referring to the fact that this is the first time Democrats have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress since the 2010 midterm elections. “We are not going to miss this chance to deliver.”
But beneath the confident demeanor was a palpable fear that Democrats may, in fact, miss this chance to deliver on their promises.
“The president has described for us how we can move forward and reduce our emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 years,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. “That’s nonnegotiable; it must get done. I want the United States of America to lead, not follow.”
In the style of a street demonstration for legislation that is far from a done deal, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., led a chant of “We can’t wait” from the environmental activists in the audience.
Every speaker offered a litany of reasons that strong climate action must pass now. Smith cited this summer’s record-setting heat and natural disasters, while Booker highlighted the adverse effects of climate change on everyone from farmers to his inner-city neighbors.
Implicit in all of that justification is that the climate components of the budget bill do, in fact, remain in doubt. Anxiety about prospects in the Senate and opposition from powerful interests were often the event’s subtexts. In an apparent effort to reassure wavering representatives of swing states and districts, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., said his Republican-leaning district supports combating climate change.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Surely your district is divided on this issue?’ They are not,” Kim said. “This district that voted for Trump twice understands the challenges of climate change. It is a district that got crushed by Superstorm Sandy. You might remember the iconic image of a roller coaster in the ocean: that’s my district. … We need the change now. People in my district, Democrats and Republicans, all agree upon a bold climate agenda.”
The House of Representatives has already prepared a budget that would spend $3.5 trillion over 10 years on a host of Democratic policy priorities, including prescription drug price reform, expanding access to child care and adapting to and reducing the severity of climate change. (The package is collectively known as Build Back Better.) Expert analysis suggests that it would ensure U.S. emissions drop by 50 to 52 percent by 2030, but the Democrats’ one-vote Senate majority has been unable to pass that package, due primarily to opposition from centrist Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both have said they think the bill is too expensive.
Manchin, in particular, has forced the removal of the biggest climate-change-fighting provision, the Clean Energy Performance Program, which would have incentivized utilities to quickly transition to clean energy sources. The rift between Manchin and his more liberal colleagues appears to be growing.
Frustration with Manchin and Sinema was palpable at Wednesday’s event.
“The House has done its job,” Castor said. “We’ve drafted strong climate policies to meet the president’s goal. We’ve ushered a robust bill through our committees. We’re going to keep fighting until that bill lands on the president’s desk.”
“History is not going to judge us by the price tag,” she added, in an unsubtle jab at Manchin and Sinema. “History is going to judge us by our determination to do the right thing, at the right time, before it’s too late. And that time is now.”
This wouldn’t be the first time the House tried to pass climate legislation at a crucial moment before global climate change negotiations, only to see it die in the Senate.
“In 2009, the House passed a bill, the Waxman-Markey bill, that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050,” Markey recalled. “Barack Obama went to Copenhagen in November 2009 and made that promise to the world. But [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the oil and gas and coal companies, they had another plan. And in 2010 they killed that plan; they killed that promise.”
Pelosi even tiptoed up to the edge of echoing the House Progressive Caucus’s threat to withdraw support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill if it isn’t accompanied by a budget that includes strong enough measures to address climate change, before returning to the political safety of extolling the virtues of Biden’s proposal.
“It would be a dereliction of duty to build the infrastructure of America without doing so in a green way that protects the planet,” Pelosi said. “And that is exactly what Build Back Better does.”
It would be more accurate to say that’s what Build Back Better would do. Whether it will have the chance to do so remains in doubt.
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