President-elect Joe Biden would face bad prospects enacting big climate legislation even if Democrats control the Senate by the tiniest of margins from winning next week’s runoff races in Georgia.
Chuck Schumer as majority leader would set the legislative agenda if Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeat Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff election.
But Senate Democrats would only have a nominal majority, with seats split evenly between each party and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris acting as a tiebreaker. That means Biden would have a tough time passing sweeping policies to combat climate change, such as a mandate for carbon-free electricity by 2035 or the price on carbon.
“Democrats still need to get 60 votes for their priorities, and there are real disagreements within their own caucus,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Senate Finance Committee staff member and climate change adviser in the Clinton administration. “Having the majority is the most important single thing, but it doesn’t solve all your problems,” added Bledsoe, who is now with the Progressive Policy Institute.
Full Democratic control of government has not occurred since the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
That possibility would seem to open more paths for Biden to enact his climate agenda, the most aggressive ever. He promised to eliminate greenhouse gases from the power grid by 2035 and for the overall economy by 2050.
But Biden’s proposals to use mandates, regulations, and federal spending to reduce fossil fuel use will be a tough sell for members such as Joe Manchin, the senator from the coal state of West Virginia who would lead the Senate Energy Committee under Democratic control.
“When you have razor-thin margins, each senator matters, and it’s very difficult to predict how that plays out,” Bledsoe said. “There is a big difference between a Bernie Sanders and a Senator Manchin.”
Even if Biden were able to coax all 50 Democrats to vote for his policies, it won’t guarantee passage, because most bills would still need 60 votes under Senate rules.
“Even if the Democrats win both seats in Georgia, legislation is still going to be very difficult in general,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a liberal environmental group. “The game has been and will be executive action for the foreseeable future because Congress is pretty broken.”
Liberal Democrats had hoped to bypass that problem by eliminating the filibuster, the Senate rule that prevents debate on legislation from ending and moving to a vote without approval from 60 out of 100 senators. But Democrats possessing a smaller than expected majority dampens the prospect of rule changes. Manchin, for example, has already said he won’t scrap the filibuster.
“It’s probably not strategic with such a narrow margin to do something that aggressive,” Hartl said.
The lack of a clear significant majority for a few more years means liberals, such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who crave a “Green New Deal” are likely to be unsatisfied, while fossil fuel business interests continue to avoid mandates or carbon prices that they’ve successfully deflected for years.
Liberal climate activists acknowledge Biden will lean on executive authority for some of his priorities, such as setting stricter emissions regulations for oil and gas facilities and vehicles, limiting fossil fuel production on federal lands, directing the government to purchase more clean energy and electric cars, and requiring public companies to disclose the risks they face from climate change.
Jamal Raad, a former Senate staffer and campaign director of Evergreen Action, said executive actions are important, but he argued Democrats should not shy away from pursuing major climate legislation. He noted polling from liberal group Data for Progress that shows that clean electricity standards, or mandates, were viewed favorably during the campaign among battleground state voters.
“The North Star should be getting the Biden climate agenda he ran on passed through any means necessary,” Raad said. “There is no political reason for Senate Democrats to back down from pursuing major legislation to decarbonize the electricity sector.”
Schumer is signaling he’ll be aggressive.
“We need a big, bold, and green infrastructure bill,” Schumer said Wednesday before meeting with Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary.
Schumer also listed as a priority his “Clean Cars for America” proposal that would seek through a trade-in program to replace all gasoline-powered vehicles with ones that don’t emit carbon by 2040.
“Under a Mitch McConnell Senate, clean cars and green infrastructure never see the light of day,” Raad said.
Mike Carr, a former Democratic counsel to the Senate Energy Committee, expects Democrats to use reconciliation, the procedural tool that allows for the passing of fiscal measures with a simple majority, meaning Republican votes aren’t necessary. While it could be a good fit for passing a carbon tax, Carr said Democrats could use it to pursue less contentious tax and spending climate policies.
He noted that Sen. Ron Wyden, who would chair the Finance Committee if Democrats control the upper chamber, has proposed setting new tax credits to reinvigorate clean energy technology manufacturing in the U.S.
“The fact is the real progress we’ve made on climate technologies has been through a series of smaller tax policies for solar and wind,” said Carr, who is now executive director of New Energy America. “That stuff matters a lot, and it’s where the action will be.”
Bledsoe said Democrats could also use reconciliation to repeal some of Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts to help pay for clean energy and infrastructure spending.
Ben Pendergrass, senior director of government affairs for Citizens Climate Lobby, a centrist environmental group, said Biden and Democrats would be best served by convincing Republicans to pass legislation.
Congress on a bipartisan basis last month passed the biggest emission-reducing legislation in over a decade, focused on funding research and development of low-carbon technologies.
Partisan measures approved through reconciliation, by contrast, could be reversed should the Senate majority change hands again.
“There is no way in that closely divided Congress you will be able to move things without bipartisan cooperation,” Pendergrass said. “Regardless of the outcome of the election, that’s going to be the case.”