Democrats Explore How Biden Climate Plan Would Navigate a Hostile U.S. Senate
Opinion & Analysis
With a bitter presidential campaign in the United States winding down to its last 100 or so hours, and Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris holding a steady lead in opinion polls, U.S. analysts are starting to ponder how much the new administration will be able to get done on climate policy once it takes office—and how they’ll go about it.
Biden has released an ambitious, US$2-trillion climate platform, and seemed to go out of his way at the final presidential debate last Thursday night to underscore his support for a transition off oil. But observers expect that plan to run headlong into what they see as the realities of governing in Washington—a divided Congress, if Republicans manage to hold onto their majority in the Senate (which looks like a stretch at the moment), or their reflexive misuse of the Senate filibuster, if Democrats can’t muster the backbone to limit the practice or end it once and for all.
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“No one knows better than Mr. Biden, the former vice president, that [the full plan] almost surely will not be enacted, even if his party secures the White House and the Senate,” writes veteran New York Times climate specialist Coral Davenport. “Thirty-six years in the Senate and the searing experience of watching the Obama administration’s less ambitious climate plan die a decade ago have taught him the art of the possible.”
Click here for our Special Report on climate and the U.S. election.
Biden’s advisors “insist that climate change is not just a political slogan,” Davenport adds. “And on Capitol Hill, his team is already strategizing with Democratic leaders on how they can realistically turn at least some of those proposals into law.”
But if Biden and Harris win next week, there’s concern that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will take up all the available time and attention and use up all the new administration’s political capital—just as health care reform did in the first two years of the Obama presidency from 2008 to 2010.
“The biggest factor in not getting climate change done in 2010 was health care,” former Obama Congressional liaison Phil Schiliro told the Times. “And this could happen again, with the other things that have to come first. The coronavirus is such an enormous wild card.”
But at least so far, the word from Team Biden tells a different, (dare we hope) more determined story. “There are three things we have to do—climate, economic equality and democracy,” said Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who will take over as Senate majority leader if today’s poll numbers hold through the end of the election. “All three are vital, and climate is not going to be the caboose.”
Schumer added that “I will fight for a big, bold climate package,” and “as [majority] leader, will be focused on assembling a climate package that meets the scale and the scope of the problem.”
If Biden wins the White House but Republicans hold the Senate, his “loftiest climate pledges will certainly die,” the Times states. “But even a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate would leave a President Biden with options. And this time around, Mr. Biden wants to do it differently, not with a stand-alone climate bill, but by tucking climate measures into broader, popular legislation to insulate them from partisan attack.” Lead candidates for that approach would include a pandemic relief bill, and an infrastructure bill that could include funding for 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes.
If Republicans work to block those measures, Democrats can and likely will use a budget process called reconciliation to “muscle through climate spending and tax policy,” the Times adds. Biden will also have the authority to undo many of Donald Trump’s unilateral attacks on U.S. climate action over the last four years, by bringing his country back into the 2015 Paris Agreement and reinstating Obama-era methane controls that Trump officials worked persistently to dismantle.
But under current Senate rules—particularly the filibuster—cornerstone policies like a national clean energy standard, which would mandate a transition to zero-carbon electricity by 2035, will be a tougher sell, the Times says.
“Other energy proposals have a degree of bipartisan support and thus could conceivably be passed regardless of the exact makeup of Congress next term,” Utility Dive agrees, in a post that digs into some of the specific legislation on offer and the legislative compromises that might emerge after the election. “For advocates of climate action, however, these policies are inadequate, at least by themselves, when compared to a standard that mandates emissions reductions.”
“We would prioritize a clean energy standard,” said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “It’s a way to ensure progress toward a clean energy future.”
Like the Times, Utility Dive says the slim majority Democrats hope to eke out in Senate won’t be enough to pass sweeping climate policy, as they tried to do in 2008-2010 with the Waxman-Markey clean energy bill. “It would be very hard to find 60 votes in the Senate for an economy-wide policy,” said Sasha Mackler, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Energy Project.
“Other policy proposals that would need bipartisan support include the establishment of a new government research agency focused solely on solutions to climate change; a mandate for the federal government to purchase hybrid and electric vehicles; and a measure to promote the widespread use of farm equipment that captures planet-warming methane emissions from manure,” the Times adds.
But if Senate Republicans do take a scorched-earth approach to Biden’s climate agenda, they’ll have to weigh the risk that Democrats will simply do away with the filibuster, so that decisions can actually be made by majority vote.
“Although the Senate has gotten rid of the filibuster for judicial and executive branch confirmations, leaders in both parties have opposed ending it for legislation, fearing the prospect of absolute majority rule,” the Times writes. “But climate change might lead Democrats to take a step that has been considered unthinkable, some Democrats say.”
“If Republicans still think climate change is a hoax and won’t play ball, and they take the ball and go back to their court, we’ll find other ways to proceed,” said Tom Carper, a Democratic senator from Biden’s home state of Delaware who’s been designated as the former vice president’s Congressional point person on climate change.
“Getting rid of the filibuster—that shouldn’t be the first thing we should lead with,” Carper added. “But Republicans should have in the back of their minds that it could come to that.”
The roadblocks most observers expect from Republicans in Senate will also run into a president who says he’s been working on climate change since the 1980s and sees it as a top priority for his administration.
“It’s the number one issue facing humanity, and it’s a number one issue for me,” Biden told the Pod Save America podcast over the weekend.
“Climate change is the existential threat to humanity,” he added, leading into a roughly nine-minute segment on the steps he plans to take to address it. “Unchecked, it is going to actually bake this planet. This is not hyperbole. It’s real.”