Progressives push more clean energy infrastructure spending

Bills propose more than $1 trillion for U.S.-made clean energy products

The proposals from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Andy Levin reflect how some Democrats would like to see a more ambitious infrastructure package even as Republicans seek to limit its size and scope. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The proposals from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Andy Levin reflect how some Democrats would like to see a more ambitious infrastructure package even as Republicans seek to limit its size and scope. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 27, 2021 at 10:34am

A pair of progressive lawmakers is pushing to include legislation that would lock in more than $1 trillion in spending for U.S.-made clean energy products and create a new division of the Energy Department focused on low- and zero-carbon options.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., are set to unveil two bills Thursday as left-leaning Democrats in Congress are pushing the Biden administration and members of their party on Capitol Hill to maintain a broad, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package and rebuff Republican efforts to narrow its breadth and scale.

President Joe Biden proposed a $2.25 trillion public works package in late March. The White House lowered the price of its original proposal by about $500 billion on Friday following weeks of negotiation between administration officials and Senate Republicans.

Warren and Levin want to fold both of their bills into the infrastructure legislation, staffers said.

[Clean electricity standard, key to climate fight, awaits definition]

One of the pieces of legislation would flex the purchasing power of the federal government and establish $1.5 trillion in “federal procurement commitments” over the next decade to buy domestically made “clean, renewable, and emission-free energy products” for federal, state and local use, according to a summary of the bill.

The second bill would invest $400 billion over 10 years to create a new section of DOE focused on research and development of low-carbon energy technology called the Clean Energy Institutes, fashioned in part after the National Institutes of Health.

That new DOE unit would focus on hard-to-decarbonize sections of society and the economy, such as the aviation and shipping industries, which together emit more greenhouse gases than most countries in the world, as well as battery storage and environmental justice. 

The proposals from Warren and Levin reflect how some Democrats would like to see a more ambitious infrastructure package even as Republicans seek to limit its size and scope.

'Real infrastructure'

Several Republican senators on Wednesday described their concerns as more focused at this point on the definition of infrastructure, rather than just the price tag.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., for example, told reporters if Democrats put a “real infrastructure” bill on the floor, that Senate Republicans would “pounce on it like a ninja.” Kennedy said Biden is asking him to “buy a car to get the cupholders” and that only a small portion of the Democratic plan is what he would label actual infrastructure.

“The rest of it is the Green New Deal, reparations, and by the way, while we're at it, I want to take over child care in America,” Kennedy said. “That's not infrastructure. Infrastructure is roads, bridges, ports, sewer, water, broadband.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said constituents ask her frequently about the need to upgrade basic infrastructure but aren’t pushing to expand the definition of what that entails.

Traditional infrastructure spending priorities could be handled in such a way that would provide benefits for the climate, Fischer said.

But she rejected the idea that something like money for clean energy research would be considered traditional infrastructure spending.

“I want to see taxpayer dollars being spent, and spent wisely, to make investments on the ground, whether it’s roads and bridges or broadband or ports and airports, waterways,” Fischer said. “That’s the kind of stuff that we need to make sure that it’s getting built and getting built soon.”

But left-leaning Democrats continue their push to expand what’s included under the infrastructure umbrella.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and other progressives have rallied behind their own infrastructure vision in a Green New Deal-like resolution (H Res 104, S Res. 43) calling for what sponsors say would amount to about $10 trillion in spending over 10 years on public health priorities, tackling climate change and addressing racial inequities.

Markey said in a statement last week that GOP counterproposals to Biden's original eight-year $2.25 trillion plan would mean “fewer jobs, less justice, less climate action, and less investment in America’s future.”

“We need to make the investments now to help our country and communities rebuild and recover, as well to ensure that we never return to the status quo that left too many Americans behind and created the worsening climate crisis,” Markey said. “Now is the time to go big, to go bold, and to go fast.”