Dems grimace at Manchin’s bipartisan energy detour

Sheldon Whitehouse has given nearly 300 speeches begging Washington to act on climate change. So count him as unconvinced that Republicans are going to suddenly cut a bipartisan climate deal.

“They’re just not capable of that,” the Rhode Island Democratic senator observed. “There’s literally nothing happening in the bipartisan effort. One Republican senator showed up at one meeting.”

A small bipartisan group of lawmakers will gather again on Monday evening to hash out whether a deal is possible to combat climate change and modernize U.S. energy policy. The meeting comes at a critical decision point for President Joe Biden and his slim majorities in Congress. Most Democrats believe they have just a few weeks to finish their legislative agenda before midterm politics derail everything, yet Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) started trying to recruit Republicans to work on energy.

Time is running short, tensions high. And Republicans aren’t shy about their goals: They want to break Democrats’ resolve to pass another party-line tax and spending bill.

If bipartisan negotiations on climate do just that, then “hallelujah,” as bipartisan group member Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) put it. Most Democrats say there’s no chance they will abandon their last-ditch effort to pass a big GOP-free bill lowering prescription drug prices, reforming the tax code and plowing billions into curbing carbon emissions.

The man in the center of it all says the blunt force of a party-line filibuster sidestep “is for taxes” and that he’s “committed to an energy-climate bill that makes sense for the United States of America.” So does Manchin want a bipartisan energy bill and a Democratic-only tax bill that includes some climate spending?

“I’m keeping all options open,” he replied in vintage fashion.

The West Virginia Democrat, who four months ago derailed Democrats’ $1.7 trillion bid known as “Build Back Better,” met privately with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week to talk about inflation. Schumer told Democrats afterward it was a positive meeting and remarked that because Republicans don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy, the filibuster-evading effort is “the only way to get rid of inflation.”

In an interview, Manchin was pretty blunt about his message to the Democratic leader.

“I said, ‘Chuck, if you do anything, you’ve got to be serious about inflation. You’ve got to be serious about paying down the debt,’” Manchin recalled. “We’ll be facing a hell of a mess on Social Security in 2026. We haven’t addressed that. There’s so many things that need to be addressed, and it’s not by spending more money.”

The bipartisan climate group’s end goals are fuzzy, though Manchin and Republicans generally favor investments in advanced nuclear energy and equipment to help facilities capture their carbon emissions. The Democrats-only package, in contrast, would pour hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy tax credits and possibly include a fee on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Manchin already significantly pared back the lofty Democratic vision for reining in climate change. He axed an envisioned national clean electricity program, which would have paid utilities around the country for steadily reducing their emissions, as part of negotiations on the party-line bill push last fall.

A pessimist in this moment of uncertainty — and there are plenty of those in the Senate Democratic caucus — might raise the prospect that none of the party’s big ticket priorities get addressed before November. Most Democrats think they have just weeks to fish or cut bait, and they’re blanching at the lack of specificity in talks with Manchin about a party-line bill.

“It’s time to cut a deal and get it done on climate that we can put into reconciliations,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “And continue broader talks in multiple directions.”

It’s also hard to square the proximity of the midterms with the political will needed to clinch a bipartisan climate bill that has the support of at least 10 Republican senators. As of now, Cramer, Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are among the group’s active participants — though Cramer was the only one to attend the first meeting last week.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is interested in dealing with climate, said he wasn’t invited likely because of his fiscal conservative roots: “I’m not for spending any new money on it.” He guessed that the meetings were really “for show” and said there was little chance of 10 Republicans’ support.

Republicans don’t truly seem open to a climate deal that would keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, the goal identified by scientists to avoid the worst consequences of a warming planet. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) famously negotiated for months in 2010 before ultimately abandoning a possible agreement.

One Senate Republican, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said the entire bipartisan effort appeared aimed at destroying any momentum Democrats have for another big party-line bill. Cramer insisted that GOP participation in Manchin’s talks doesn’t stem from an explicit desire to kill the Democratic effort, but he welcomed any resulting slowdown as a possible side effect.

Bipartisan gangs enjoy mixed success in the 50-50 Senate. For some, Manchin’s latest foray is reminiscent of his futile push to get Republicans on board with elections reform. But he also played a key role in negotiating both a bipartisan infrastructure and Covid aid package, and he’s trying to reform the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act in similar fashion.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) both said the discussions were worth having on climate. Kelly, who’s in the group, said Democrats are pursuing “two different paths” on their domestic agenda. But Tester said one of the paths deals with more urgent issues.

“If you get a bipartisan [climate] bill you can do outside reconciliation, it’s fine,” Tester said. But he urged Democrats to “prioritize on need. And I can tell you right now, in the area of housing and childcare, there’s incredible demand out there that’s not going to be solved by the private sector if we do nothing.”

Other members of the Democratic caucus expressed concerns that a bipartisan climate bill wouldn’t do enough and that, just like last year’s infrastructure bill, it could hamper efforts to pursue the party’s progressive priorities.

“What I worry about is doing something that is not significant, and people will say ‘We’ve dealt with climate,’” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “My perception is that there are very few Republicans who are prepared to tackle that crisis in a way that’s appropriate.”

Sen. Brian Schatz is representing Democratic climate hawks in the group, but the normally chatty Hawaiian is keeping his cards to the vest: “I don’t express my worries publicly.” Not to worry; Whitehouse has no reservations.

When it comes to working with Republicans, Whitehouse said, “I’m from Missouri on this one: The Show Me State.” As for joining the group itself, he said that while he talks “to people who are involved, I’m probably a little too skeptical of it to be very helpful.”