Democrats work through Manchin obstacles on budget bill

Senators say they're discussing alternatives for clean electricity program

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., met with key progressives Monday to work through differences on their party's budget package as other Democrats began discussing alternatives to a climate program Manchin opposes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., met with key progressives Monday to work through differences on their party's budget package as other Democrats began discussing alternatives to a climate program Manchin opposes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 18, 2021 at 9:37pm

Senate Democrats said Monday they are looking at alternative proposals for reducing carbon emissions amid West Virginia centrist Joe Manchin III’s opposition to a $150 billion clean electricity performance program.

Manchin opposes the program, which would provide subsidies to utilities that shift to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear and meet certain emission targets while penalizing those that don’t, and said he thinks energy companies are already making the transition. West Virginia is a top producer of coal and natural gas -- energy sources that would likely draw penalties under the proposed program. 

Some Senate climate hawks begrudgingly acknowledged Monday that the CEPP may not make it into the final package and that Democrats are discussing alternative proposals.

"I've been told it would be prudent to plan alternatives and be very happy if it is not out," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said.

The acknowledgement was just one of a few signs Monday that Democrats have started working through obstacles that Manchin -- who effectively holds veto power over the partisan budget reconciliation package in the 50-50 Senate -- has erected as his party seeks to unify around a package of social spending and climate programs, offset by tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals.(HR 5376)

Another sign was that Manchin met directly Monday with top progressives who have polar opposite priorities. He told reporters he had “good” meetings with Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-V.t., and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., but he declined to get into details.

“We’re all meeting and talking, that’s good,” Manchin said. 

Sanders also declined to provide details but said he would continue talks with Manchin and others in an effort to wrap up negotiations that “have been going on for month after month after month."

“I would hope that we’re going to see some real action within the next week or so,” he said.

After Sanders and Manchin provided their separate assessments of the meeting to reporters Monday evening, Manchin suggested they pose for a photograph together, which they did before jumping in their respective vehicles. 

“Never give up Bernie, never give up,” Manchin shouted before shutting the car door. 

The differences to work through are vast. Sanders and other progressives initially proposed a $6 trillion topline for the reconciliation package before agreeing to a $3.5 trillion compromise that Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema oppose. Manchin has said his ceiling is $1.5 trillion, while Sinema has not specified a number. President Joe Biden recently suggested the final price tag will end up closer to $2 trillion to accommodate their concerns. 

Manchin wants to cut programs and impose work requirements and income cutoffs on much of the social spending that remains. Progressives, meanwhile, want to keep all major initiatives in the bill, for fewer years, and provide universal or expansive access to benefits to serve the middle class in addition to lower-income earners.

Climate alternatives 

The removal of the clean electricity program from the bill would help cut costs but would be a significant blow to Democrats’ climate goals. Senators said Monday they would need to replace it with another climate measure that’s not already in the House package if they want to meet or get close to Biden’s goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030, using 2005 emission levels as the base. 

“We're committed to climate ambition and that hasn't changed,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. “I still feel reasonably confident that we're going to land in a place that is not just the biggest climate bill that the United States has ever enacted but the biggest climate bill for a major economic power on the planet currently.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said if the CEPP is out of the package it will need to be replaced by a policy or policies that can achieve an equal reduction in carbon emissions. He and other Democrats mentioned a carbon tax -- Whitehouse called it “the most significant piece” -- as a potential alternative, but Manchin said Monday he opposes that too. 

Another option Van Hollen floated is spending more money on a clean energy accelerator, which would provide financing to state and local green banks and investments in infrastructure projects that reduce climate emissions. 

Schatz and Whitehouse said energy tax incentives are a key part of reducing climate emissions and they favor the Senate Finance Committee’s proposal, which has fewer incentives directly tied to carbon reduction, over the House version, which expands on a hodgepodge of existing incentives. 

Whitehouse said modeling of the tax proposals to determine what is most effective at reducing carbon emissions hasn’t occurred yet but will be key toward finalizing details.

“There's a pretty hard line that we need to hit the emissions bogeys that we've identified, and we have very good modeling on call to test, check and double check what the emission effects are of different things,” he said.

Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., appeared to have access to some modeling that Whitehouse did not. He told reporters that his panel’s energy tax bill would “be responsible for 73 percent of the emission reductions in the next 10 years.” 

Several Democrats have warned they can’t support a reconciliation package that doesn’t meet Biden’s climate goals. 

“There's a lot of different ways to get there, but I can't support a bill that doesn't make a meaningful downpayment on saving the planet,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said.

‘Accelerated pace’

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki welcomed the “accelerated pace” of reconciliation negotiations as she noted Biden spent the weekend talking to Democratic lawmakers “who represent the full spectrum of views.” She said the president met with Jayapal at the White House on Monday morning, planned to call other members that afternoon and would host separate meetings with House progressives and House moderates Tuesday.  

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in floor remarks that Democrats “must put aside our differences and find common ground within our party.” He cited “productive conversations” last week and over the weekend with his Senate colleagues, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House, and noted they’d continue those talks this week.

“As with any bill of such historic proportions, not every member will get everything he or she wants. But at the end of the day, we will pass legislation that dramatically improves the lives of the American people.”  

Schumer did not mention an Oct. 31 deadline he and Pelosi had previously set for getting the package done. That date is when surface transportation programs expire. The Senate has passed a five-year reauthorization as part of its bipartisan infrastructure bill, but progressives are withholding the votes needed to pass that bill in the House until the reconciliation package is complete. 

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the No. 3 in Democratic leadership, called Oct. 31 a “House deadline.” She said while lawmakers want to bring the negotiations to a close “as soon as possible,” there’s no official timeline.

“You'll make Christmas or the holidays,” Stabenow told reporters. “We'll leave it at that."