How might Democrats salvage key pieces of climate legislation from Biden’s stalled Build Back Better Act?

Joe Biden at a podium

In his first press conference of the new year, President Biden suggested Wednesday that key pieces of climate legislation from his stalled Build Back Better Act could still move forward. Though the broad climate and social policy bill made it through the House in November, all Republican senators oppose it, and the legislation has not won the support of swing vote Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. How might Biden still make progress with climate action in spite of this roadblock? 

Bruce Cain, Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director, Bill Lane Center for the American West

Political scientist Bruce Cain, who directs the Bill Lane Center for the American West and researches the politics of climate change, warns that it seems likely at the moment that Democrats will lose control of either the House or the Senate in the midterms. “Hence, the goal must be to take what you can get now,” says Cain, or Democrats will miss the opportunity to secure funding for important environmental policies. Without these policies – specifically, without Build Back Better’s allocation of billions for clean energy – researchers predict that the country will not be able to meet Biden’s reduced emissions targets, causing global temperatures to continue climbing with potentially catastrophic results. In the American West, with its recent uptick in devastating, drought-induced wildfires, many of these climate impacts are already being felt.

So what should Democrats do to move Biden’s climate agenda forward in the face of a dead Build Back Better bill? “To make any progress in Congress in the next year, the Democrats are going to have to lower the total proposed spending considerably unless the rate of inflation abates dramatically over the winter.  Being blamed for inflation is something centrist Democrats want to avoid to the degree they can,” Cain says.

As far as getting Joe Manchin on board, Cain feels Democrats should focus on tax credits: “Whatever the total amount of spending, the best shot for getting Senator Manchin’s support means focusing on relatively noncontroversial tax credits such as for solar panels or energy efficiency upgrades in residential and commercial buildings. These measures save consumers and businesses money.” Manchin’s constituents would likely appreciate “carbon capture tax credits and money to remediate abandoned coal mines and gas sites,” Cain adds, though he acknowledges some liberals might find these measures controversial.

Biden’s Green New Deal was never achievable in the first place, Cain believes; it was aspirational. And Build Back Better stands as an example of overreach, in his opinion, which is the opposite of the principles Biden ran on, like centrism and a professed desire to foster modest bipartisan cooperation. As it is written, Build Back Better may present far too ambitious of a plan for a party that has such a narrow Senate majority, Bruce Cain suggests. But if Biden can break the strategy into acceptable pieces and get those pieces signed into law – something he said he was confident he could achieve in yesterday’s press conference – perhaps some of his climate agenda can be salvaged. 

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