Environmental advocates are shifting their focus to a multi-trillion, Democrat-led spending package after seeing that a smaller bipartisan infrastructure deal is unlikely to include many of their priorities.
The bipartisan agreement is expected to include some scaled-down versions of President Biden’s climate proposals, but activists are optimistic that they can achieve many of their goals through a Democrat-only measure that is poised to advance alongside the smaller $1.2 trillion package.
“Our eyes are on the prize,” Ben Beachy, director of the Sierra Club’s living economy program, told The Hill on Thursday.
“We’re fighting for a big bold infrastructure package, and the path for that, as confirmed today, is the reconciliation path, and that is certainly our focus,” he said.
During weeks of bipartisan negotiations, advocates have stressed that they see infrastructure as crucial to getting key climate provisions across the finish line.
That bipartisan deal announced on Thursday is slated to include just $15 billion for electric vehicles and transit, compared with Biden’s initial goal of $174 billion.
It also appears to omit other Biden proposals, such as a push for energy efficient building upgrades and a clean electricity standard, which would make power providers get all of their energy from clean sources by 2035.
Biden said, however, that he also wants to pursue a separate bill to be passed through budget reconciliation, a process that would allow Democrats to sidestep a GOP filibuster and pass the measure with a simple majority.
That measure is more likely to have Democratic priorities on climate, especially as a large group of senators in the party have pledged not to vote for it unless there are major climate provisions.
The 50-50 split in the Senate means all 50 members of the Democratic caucus would have to be on board to pass a reconciliation package.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a crucial swing vote, called reconciliation “inevitable,” and Biden spoke with moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) about a path forward on Friday.
Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said advocates will have a role to play in convincing Manchin and Sinema that strong climate action is in their best interest.
“Both of those senators are concerned about climate and they’re committed to finding solutions… and they have unique constituencies and states. And as advocates, our job is to ensure, first of all, that they see a transition to a clean energy economy as an opportunity…and that they see it as a political winner,” Gore said.
“We’ve really tried to tie specific policies back to the impact for jobs and communities and the economy back in their…home state,” she added. “This isn’t about brow-beating them into supporting a policy that goes against their interest. It’s demonstrating and advocating that climate policy and this clean energy transition is good for their state.”
Sam Ricketts, a co-founder and senior adviser for the advocacy group Evergreen, expressed optimism that moderate and progressive Democrats would come together to put forward a strong package.
“Democrats from the most conservative to the most progressive recognize the need and the opportunity facing the country right now, as it is dealing with interwoven crises,” Ricketts said.
But he acknowledged that advocates may need to push to get them there.
“We’ve got to fight…to make sure that elected leaders are actually going to recognize the moment that we’re in, and meet that moment with [a] policy response,” Ricketts said.
“It’s going to be the thing that needs to be sorted between advocates and lawmakers throughout the course of the summer as they turn to advancing a reconciliation that will be the venue through which we get the level of investments that the climate demands and our country needs,” he added.
Among the priorities environmental groups have highlighted are the clean electricity standard, clean energy tax incentives, ending fossil fuel subsidies, upgrading buildings in an efficient manner and putting together a civilian climate corps that creates jobs in areas like conservation.
Meanwhile, some Republicans who initially signed onto the bipartisan agreement have indicated that they could pull out given the plans by Democrats to tie it to a reconciliation package.
“No deal by extortion! It was never suggested to me during these negotiations that President Biden was holding hostage the bipartisan infrastructure proposal unless a liberal reconciliation package was also passed,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Since then, Biden appeared to clarify some of his initial comments on the two measures, saying that he didn’t mean to threaten to veto the bipartisan package if it passed without a reconciliation package.
For activists, GOP wavering provided an additional reason to shift their efforts toward the reconciliation piece.
“There’s a chance Republicans blow up the bipartisan agreement in the first place, so right now we have our eyes on what’s actually moving in the House and the Senate, which is the budget resolution and the reconciliation process and making sure that those are as bold and robust as possible to meet the scale and urgency that the crises demand,” said Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the progressive Sunrise Movement.
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