Democrats eye climate in big infrastructure push

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2021

Democrats eye climate in big infrastructure push

President Biden and congressional Democrats are already bracing for the next big legislative fight — a major infrastructure package that may aim to bolster clean energy.

But a cacophony of competing demands is already threatening to divide Democrats who have largely united behind the coronavirus relief bill currently being debated in Congress.

As Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and I report, Biden met Wednesday with senior leadership of the AFL-CIO and other labor unions at the White House and discussed both the current relief package and the coming infrastructure push.

“We are so far behind the curve. We rank like 38th in the world in terms of infrastructure, everything from canals to highways to airports, to everything we can do and we need to do to make ourselves competitive in the 21st Century,” Biden said as the Oval Office meeting got underway.

The calls for boosting spending on infrastructure comes as the power system in Texas reels from a winter storm that has left more than 500,000 customers without electricity as of Thursday morning.

The next bill will be a daunting test for Biden as he moves on from addressing the pandemic.

Senior Democratic officials have discussed proposing as much as $3 trillion in new spending as part of a wide-ranging jobs and infrastructure package that would be the foundation of Biden’s “Build Back Better” program, according to three people granted anonymity to share details of private deliberations.

Unlike under former president Donald Trump, whose many “Infrastructure Week” efforts sputtered, Biden is expected to take a big swing at the issue and package together funding for expanded broadband networks, bridge and road repairs as well as technology that reduces greenhouse gasses.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden’s plan “will make historic investments in infrastructure — in the auto industry, in transit, in the power sector — creating millions of good union jobs, and in the process, also addressing the climate crisis head-on.”

But it’s unclear when the package will be officially unveiled. Biden said Jan. 14 he would lay out his recovery plan during his first appearance before a joint session of Congress the following month, but no date was announced. Psaki said Wednesday he would not detail plans for the next legislation until the coronavirus relief bill is passed and signed into law.

When it comes to climate change, Democrats are unified in principle but divided on the details.

Climate hawks and moderates disagree over reducing production of natural gas and whether to enact a tax on gasoline or carbon.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing a tax rebates for people who turn in internal-combustion engines and buy electric cars. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), meanwhile, has discussed green energy initiatives with administration officials.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed to the energy crisis in Texas as reason to reinvest in the electric grid. “Together, we must build back better an electric grid that’s cheaper, cleaner and more reliable,” she said Wednesday.

But whether Biden will try to roll these major goals into one package appears uncertain. Senior Democrats have discussed the possibility that the package could be cleaved into separate, smaller pieces of legislation that could be passed through Congress on a piecemeal basis, particularly if Republicans are willing to support a stand-alone bipartisan infrastructure deal.

One of the most immediate questions confronting Democrats: Go bipartisan, or go it alone?

Democrats have supported expediting Biden’s coronavirus relief package with no GOP votes, but centrist lawmakers could balk again approving the measure through the budget procedure known as reconciliation.

“I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around how we use reconciliation without undermining our success working across the aisle,” said Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Yet he and other Democrats say climate change is too urgent of a problem for the party to do nothing when it has full control of Congress and the White House. “We may come to a point where it’s impossible to find common ground with our Republican colleagues, and we’ll have to resort to reconciliation,” Carper said.

Some environmental advocates are arguing that a go-it-alone strategy could be the only way to get one of Biden’s biggest environmental priorities into law: eliminating greenhouse gas pollution from power plants by 2035.

Two left-leaning groups, Evergreen Action and Data for Progress, have sketched out several ways of trying to put zero-emissions requirements on electric utilities through the budget-writing process.

There is some momentum among Democrats to pursue that strategy. “The most important thing is that we listen really carefully, we build a broad coalition and we keep all of the options that we have on the table to get this done, including reconciliation,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.).

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted temperature fluctuations are already posing a risk to her state’s cherry crops. She does not want to wait until the next farm package, due in 2023, to start offering more aid to growers.

“We can’t wait until the next farm bill,” she said. “This is very serious and I feel a great sense of urgency to get started on the things that need to be done. So I’m going to look for whatever vehicle will allow us to do that.”