Democratic divisions over their pending budget reconciliation package are exacerbating fears among environmentalists that Biden officials could arrive at next month’s international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, without significant legislative accomplishments on climate change, complicating the U.S. negotiating stance.
“I fear they have now waited until we are just about at [Glasgow] and the President is going to show up pretty much empty handed,” says one environmentalist, expressing concern that legislative gridlock could scar the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 talks, but also hoping for a preliminary legislative deal in time for the meeting.
“I don’t think we are in the freak-out stage yet, but it has definitely risen to the point that the uncertainty of reconciliation has gotten people [saying], what do we do” under different legislative scenarios, says another climate advocate.
With the Glasgow summit starting in less than three weeks, the Biden administration has offered multiple assurances that America is committed to re-engagement on climate issues both nationally and on the international stage.
As part of a year-long effort to leverage the Biden administration’s renewed commitment to climate policy, White House international climate envoy John Kerry is expressing optimism that Glasgow could usher in a flurry of new pledges from countries to limit greenhouse gases.
“A much larger group of people are stepping up,” he recently told The Guardian. “I know certain countries are working hard right now on what they can achieve.”
But U.S. officials still face questions about the credibility of their pledge to halve GHGs across the economy by 2030, and experts say a Capitol Hill deal on a climate-heavy reconciliation bill would go a long way toward addressing such skepticism.
Yet, there is little public sign that Democrats are nearing agreement on such a reconciliation package, which could spend at least hundreds of billions of dollars on climate mitigation programs in addition to health care and social measures.
Capitol Hill Scenarios
Sources indicate the uncertainty has advocates and the White House considering how to talk about U.S. climate successes to date and unfinished business, depending on the status of the Hill process.
That means gaming out several scenarios, including: a public collapse of reconciliation efforts in coming weeks; a climate-heavy bill is enacted or close to it, or a third scenario in which progress is apparent but resolution is likely to occur well after the Glasgow meeting.
“If it is clear reconciliation is dead, that is a very different story than it if looks like he got most of his agenda but not everything,” the second climate advocate says. And it is possible that it “looks like things are moving in the right direction but the process takes a little longer.”
A third climate advocate downplays the idea that final passage of a reconciliation bill is a prerequisite for success at the United Nations talks, and the source expresses confidence that significant climate measures will ultimately be approved in such a bill.
But that is not the same thing as passing legislation in time for Glasgow, with the source noting that legislative efforts dragging past November have long been considered plausible. “The question is how much confidence Biden can give to other [countries] that he is going to pull that off,” the source says.
Several sources tracking the issue suggest that time is running out for lawmakers to enact a reconciliation deal before the Glasgow summit begins, even if they reach agreement on the contours of a deal in the coming days.
The sources cite inherent procedural time lags that include obtaining a Congressional Budget Office budget “score” of the package and getting input from the Senate parliamentarian on whether specific provisions can be adopted using the chamber’s complex reconciliation requirements. The reconciliation process enables expedited consideration of language that is primarily focused on spending or revenues, with limited opportunity for making new policy.
In this vein, Bracewell LLP’s Liam Donovan says in an Oct. 11 note that “practically speaking, the reconciliation package will not be passed this month,” citing other factors including that Congress is not expected to resume session until the week of Oct. 18.
“But a framework deal by Halloween is critical to ensuring that the final bill can be negotiated, crafted, scored and otherwise vetted in time to be comfortably passed and signed into law by the end of the year,” he adds.
Even reaching a framework deal, however, will require Democrats to agree on a top-line spending number expected to fall far below the often-cited $3.5 trillion that has sparked blowback from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Progressives continue to push a figure higher than the $1.5 trillion that Manchin has favored.
Current indications point to a top line figure of roughly $2 trillion -- perhaps slightly above -- meaning that the reconciliation bill would have to be significantly scaled back from language passed by multiple House committees.
That language includes plans from the Energy & Commerce and Ways & Means panels encompassing expanded clean energy tax credits, a Clean Electricity Performance Program, and other climate-related measures. Democrats are also weighing an array of health care and other social spending.
How lawmakers choose to reduce the size of the bill will determine if whole programs are eliminated or multiple policies take a budget haircut, amid multiple indications that the Biden administration and top Democrats are seeking to protect climate change programs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in an Oct. 11 “dear colleague” letter suggested that Democrats may choose to focus on retaining higher spending for fewer programs, raising the prospect of scrapping some initiatives but also defending climate spending.
“Overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis: a Build Back Better agenda for jobs and the planet For The Children!”
However, during an Oct. 12 press call, progressive lawmakers such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) argued that the notion of pitting important policies against each other is a “false choice.”
Sources tracking the Hill talks say there is increasing pressure on the Biden administration to showcase administrative actions, whether either in tandem or in lieu of legislative initiatives.
“In any case, the Biden folks are going to have to show a clear message,” the second climate advocate says, citing expectations that multiple Cabinet officials will go to the Glasgow meeting and may share new policy steps as the talks grow near.
The likely message is, “it may take a little bit more time for us to do this congressional [action], but we are serious about moving as fast as we can,” the source expects.
As one example of this message, the source cites a blizzard of recent activity on EPA’s rules to regulate the production and use of climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), with that activity appearing to be tailored to both a domestic and international audience.
Meanwhile, EPA is widely expected to issue proposals this month to toughen methane standards for the oil and gas industry, in line with a pledge by the United States, Europe and multiple other countries to work toward a goal of reducing global methane emissions by 30 percent over the next decade.
“EPA is at the center of the president's ambitious climate agenda,” Administrator Michael Regan recently told the Washington Post. “And in addition to the legislative pieces, EPA is already aggressively using its rulemaking authority to deliver the types of emission reductions that we need to protect people from climate pollution.” -- Doug Obey (email@example.com)