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Biden’s most important climate promise hinges on how his next big bill gets through Congress

A clean energy standard could rest in Joe Manchin’s hands.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in the US Capitol on February 23, 2021.
Al Drago/Getty Images

America’s hopes of seriously putting a dent in greenhouse gas emissions have a lot to do with how climate legislation fares in Congress this year.

President Joe Biden campaigned on a climate policy plan that included, as its backbone, a clean electricity standard (CES) that would push the US electricity sector to net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. Given the importance of electricity in cleaning up other sectors of the economy, the CES is arguably Biden’s single most important climate policy promise.

As traditionally conceived, a national clean energy standard is a federal regulation that would require utilities to increase the share of carbon-free sources on their grids (reaching 100 percent by 2035). States would be required to come up with their own implementation plans, just as with former President Barack Obama’s (never-implemented) Clean Power Plan.

The American Jobs Plan — Biden’s opening bid for an infrastructure and jobs bill, which was released Wednesday — calls for Congress to invest $100 billion in moving the US toward a CES, among many other things.

If Democrats intend to pass the American Jobs Plan through the budget reconciliation process, every provision must pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian based on the “Byrd Rule.” In a nutshell, the Byrd rule requires everything in a budget reconciliation bill to be relevant to the budget — it must affect federal spending and revenue. (If you think this arcane, priestly ritual sounds like an absurd way to govern an advanced democracy, you are not alone.) But a clean energy standard has no effect on federal revenue, so a conventional CES will not get past a “Byrd bath.”

However! Leah Stokes, assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, and Sam Ricketts, co-founder of Evergreen and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, recently reviewed a number of ways that a CES could be redesigned to pass reconciliation, including becoming a system of fees and credits.

For details, you can check out their report with Evergreen and Data for Progress, their Vox piece about the work, or their podcast interview with me on Volts.

TL;DR: It would be fairly straightforward to design an appropriately ambitious CES that could get past the parliamentarian. At least one senator, Minnesota’s Tina Smith, has gone on record in support of passing a CES through reconciliation.

The question is how West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin feels about it.

Manchin’s mixed comments on a clean energy standard

Figuring out whether Biden will be able to make good on promises to decarbonize the economy necessarily involves an inquiry into the beliefs, motivations, and intentions of one man: Manchin.

Manchin is the hinge. He is the Senate Democrats’ 50th vote, the signal that other caucus “moderates” follow. Every Democratic legislative effort will, in the end, rely on his support. There’s no way around it.

Reporters have asked Manchin about a clean energy standard several times. Without fail, he emphasizes that he’s an “all-in energy guy,” he values “energy independence,” and he wants to take care of hard-hit fossil fuel communities … but he refrains from ruling it out.

Back in January, in an interview in E&E News, when asked about a clean energy standard, he said: “Oh, yeah, we are open to everything on that.” He continued:

A number of investor-owned utilities are setting a net-zero, carbon-free or similar goals by 2050 or sooner on their own. These carbon reduction goals may be more achievable than we realized. Things are moving at warp speed. They really are.

Sounds promising!

“Joe Manchin understands that we’re in an energy transition and he understands the economic opportunity in clean energy,” Ricketts told me. “Hence the bill he just introduced with [Michigan Sen. Debbie] Stabenow to invest a billion dollars in clean-energy manufacturing, half of that for communities where coal plants or coal mines have closed in the last few years.”

But in a January interview with the more conservative Washington Examiner, Manchin sounded a more skeptical note in response to questioning about a CES, saying:

The market will take you there. We have moved the date farther ahead than we ever thought we would have, and we have done it without total mandates. … I will look and see what they are doing. Anything we pass sure as heck should be feasible. Just setting an artificial date doesn’t always work. You have to have faith in American ingenuity.

He also emphasized that “you can use coal and oil and gas in much cleaner fashion.”

At a February event for the Bipartisan Policy Center, Manchin was asked whether there are 50 votes in the Senate for any kind of carbon tax. He was flatly negative:

Right now, no. No. They want to have a conversation how we improve our climate and do it in a responsible way? Yeah, they’d have me, in a heartbeat. They want to talk about this as a penalty? Forget it, as long as I’m here and there’s 50 votes and it takes 51 to pass it.

Seems pretty clear. But later, when asked about a CES, he leaves the door open:

You can’t put a yes or no answer on that. Are you gonna commit to the money that it takes to do the technology, that we can prove it under commercial load, that can show we can get to zero? That’s all. But I’m not gonna do it by elimination, I can tell you that. Because the rest of the world is not gonna follow us.

What one makes of all this depends on one’s larger Theory of Manchin, whether one takes him literally or seriously.

If we take him literally, he makes no sense. There is no way to get to net-zero emissions without eliminating carbon-emitting sources. There is no way to eliminate except “by elimination.”

Nor will the market alone “take us there,” at least not fast enough. Any serious clean-electricity policy includes both carrots and sticks — there is no credible carrots-only alternative.

But if we take Manchin seriously, he is simply saying that he will work to ensure that the fossil fuel sources and communities in his state are taken care of through the transition.

The literal concern cannot be accommodated in a net-zero plan; the serious concern can.

If Manchin just wants subsidies for carbon capture and economic redevelopment in coal country, they can easily be integrated into a bill that is being discussed in the multi-trillion-dollar range. Even those in the climate community who view carbon capture with suspicion realize that 50 votes means 50 votes and the most conservative Dems must be brought along.

There’s no real question about whether some version of a CES can work for reconciliation. “Congress can design a policy that comports with the Byrd rules,” Stokes told me. “The program would simply have to be centered around a series of budgetary outlays and penalties. I am confident that this approach can fit within the rules of budget reconciliation.”

The question is whether there’s a version of a CES that can work for Manchin. It’s easy to imagine him rendering the policy toothless, full of exemptions and loopholes. It’s also easy to imagine him putting up a big theatrical fuss, as he did on the Covid-19 relief bill, and then voting the right way when the time comes.

The quest for bipartisanship and the prospects for filibuster reform

For now, Manchin is telling everyone who will listen that he doesn’t want to pass another big bill through reconciliation (see here, here, here, here, here, and most recently, here). His interview with Axios includes an incredible line.

Asked if he believes it’s possible to get 10 Republicans on the infrastructure package, which could yield the 60 votes needed under normal Senate rules, Manchin said: “I sure do.”

Let’s be very clear: There is no universe in which 10 Senate Republicans cross the aisle to lend bipartisan credibility to a high-profile, multi-trillion-dollar Democratic infrastructure bill, not in the lead-up to crucial midterm elections that could give them the House. Doing so would be against their political interests, not to mention a clear pattern of behavior stretching back over a decade. Mitch McConnell is never going to let that happen.

Does Manchin really believe it? Maybe. Another theme in his interviews is his deep faith that personal relationships can bridge the partisan divide. He has long had a close working relationship with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski; she is one of many Republicans he considers close friends.

Nonetheless, Manchin is a savvy politician, so perhaps he knows he will not get the cooperation he seeks. Perhaps he is simply determined to try in good faith, and to be seen and heard doing so, so that when the time comes — when Republicans inevitably filibuster the bill — he will have the credibility to turn to filibuster reform.

On March 7 on Meet the Press, after months of relentlessly negative comments on filibuster repeal, Manchin expressed openness to filibuster reform: “If you want to make [filibustering] a little bit more painful — make them stand there and talk — I’m willing to look at any way we can.”

That’s all that’s needed. There is only one filibuster reform that truly matters: Any filibuster must actually end. It is a form of debate, a way for the minority to be heard, but there must be some conclusion, some way to proceed from debate to a vote — an up-or-down, majority-wins vote on the bill, as the country’s founders intended.

If Manchin supports that kind of filibuster reform, he may be able to bring other Senate rules obsessives like Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema along with him. It’s been enough to make McConnell nervous.

If filibuster reform does become a live possibility, the competition will be intense for which bills get through in the precious few months before the 2022 midterms. HR1, the PRO Act, the upcoming immigration bill, and the Build Back Better plan will all be on the table.

If Manchin isn’t willing to use reconciliation for another big bill — and he isn’t willing to budge on the filibuster — he will consign most of the Democrats’ agenda, including a CES and most of the rest of their climate agenda, to the same trash heap where Obama’s post-2010 hopes were discarded.

It doesn’t seem like Manchin wants to go down in history as the man who hobbled another Democratic administration and paved the way for another Trump.

If he wants to avoid that fate by passing the climate policies at the core of Biden’s campaign, then he will make peace with either reconciliation or filibuster reform. In the end, there will be no other alternatives.

David Roberts is a contributor to Vox. He also writes a newsletter about clean energy and politics: Check out Volts on Substack. You can also find him on Twitter.