Some Democratic lawmakers are throwing their weight behind the idea of circumventing an arcane Senate rule to pass a major piece of President Biden’s climate plan – with just 51 votes.
Biden has spent his first two weeks in office kick-starting his climate agenda through executive action. But he will need the help of Congress to meet one of his most ambitious goals – eliminating greenhouse gas pollution from the power sector by 2035.
Standing in his way is the Senate filibuster, requiring most bills to get 60 votes to pass. Democrats have a razor-thin 50-50 edge in the Senate, with Vice President Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
Now handful of Democrats are now eyeing a process called budget reconciliation to require electric utilities to wind down their emissions.
They’re not considering using the current budget bill, which passed early Friday morning and allows Senate Democrats and President Biden to push through the president’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill if they can’t come to agreement with Republicans. Instead, they’re thinking about using the next budget bill to allow passage of climate-related legislation.
“I am open to all of the tools that we might have available to us to get a clean electricity standard passed,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) told reporters Thursday.
On Thursday, a pair of left-leaning environmental groups, Evergreen Action and Data for Progress, outlined several methods of designing zero-emissions requirements on utilities that can be included in a bill ostensibly meant to set federal taxes and spending.
They propose several ways of doing so, including tying funding to states for adopting carbon-free electricity or having the federal government pay for utilities to produce power from solar, wind, nuclear or other emissions-free sources.
“President Biden embraced a 100 percent clean-electricity standard by 2035 as a – not just part of his plan, but as a central feature in his climate agenda,” said Evergreen co-founder Sam Ricketts, a co-writer on the report.
“We see it is incumbent now that Congress takes action on it,” he added.
Momentum is building among Democrats to explore the strategy for passing climate legislation.
In addition to Smith, New Mexico’s Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D) and Martin Heinrich (D) have also endorsed the idea of trying to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector through the budget, as did Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.).
“Congress must explore the full range of options outlined in the report,” said Tonko, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on the environment and climate change.
And crucially, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he is willing to use budget reconciliation to address climate change.
“We’re looking at how we [can] fit as much of it into reconciliation as we can,” Schumer said of Biden’s climate plan during an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Passing a clean-energy standard is going to be a tough task – no matter what.
For budget reconciliation to work, every Democrat would need to be onboard. That includes moderate Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a crucial swing vote when it comes to energy policy.
During a Bipartisan Policy Center event Thursday, the coal-state senator suggested he was open to including a clean-energy standard in a broader infrastructure bill – as long as it invested in technology that helps coal- and gas-fired power plants capture their emissions. “We have new technology coming on now, and we can make it feasible,” he said.
But any final decision about budgetary matters will be up to the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, a career congressional staffer who enforces the body’s byzantine rules and traditions.
Scott Segal, a lawyer with Bracewell LLP, which often represents energy companies in Washington, thought the idea of passing sweeping new rules for power plants through reconciliation was “wishful thinking.”
“It is an old Washington parlor game to see what you can fit in a budget reconciliation bill, regardless of how much the effort might violate parliamentary constraints,” he said.
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