Manchin Clashes With Biden Administration Over Climate Law

Source: By Luke Broadwater, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Senator Joe Manchin III, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who faces re-election next year and is flirting with a presidential run, has threatened to repeal the measure he helped write.

Senator Joe Manchin III, wearing a dark suit and red tie, sitting at the dais in a hearing room on Capitol Hill looking over his glasses.
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has professed frustration and dismay at what he calls the “radical climate agenda” that he says is driving the Biden administration’s rollout of the law. Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Ever since Senator Joe Manchin III, the conservative West Virginia Democrat, cast the crucial vote last year for the Inflation Reduction Act, delivering President Biden his biggest legislative victory to date, the bill has weighed him down politically.

Mr. Manchin’s poll numbers in his solidly Republican and coal-rich state dropped last year after he played a critical role in writing the climate, health and tax legislation. He has since worked to rebrand the pro-environment law, telling voters it would not only combat climate change but also ensure fossil fuel production in the United States.

The senator, who is up for re-election next year and has been flirting with a presidential run of his own, has declared a sort of legislative war against the measure he helped push through Congress. He has professed frustration and dismay at what he calls the “radical climate agenda” that he says is driving the Biden administration’s rollout of the law. And he is still irritated that his colleagues failed to include one of his top priorities: an initiative to speed permitting of energy projects.

Mr. Manchin went on Fox News last month and threatened to try to reverse the legislation — “I will vote to repeal my own bill,” he said — making common cause with Republicans who have demanded the reversal of several of its provisions in exchange for raising the debt limit.

Democrats who control the Senate have no intention of allowing any such measure to move forward, but Mr. Manchin, who relishes his role as a bipartisan deal-maker on Capitol Hill, has suggested he wants to play a role in brokering a compromise on the debt ceiling that could address some of his top priorities. He has spoken one-on-one with Speaker Kevin McCarthy about a potential deal that would include energy permitting, one of several areas that have emerged in talks between White House and congressional officials as a possible patch of common ground.

“We absolutely need to get permitting reform done for the good of our country,” Mr. Manchin said.

His position reflects his political vulnerabilities and at least one of the crosscurrents at play in bipartisan debt talks.

For now, the senator appears to be on the war path against the Biden administration about its signature domestic policy law. Its projected cost has exploded as the administration began doling out the tax credits the bill authorized for electric vehicles. Mr. Manchin has complained that the credits are unnecessary and wasteful and accused the administration of slow-walking the approval of leases for domestic energy production.

Mr. Manchin, who has a personal financial interest in the coal industry, also vowed last week to block all Environmental Protection Agency nominees over a proposal to target power plant emissions.

“We’re not going to let them get away with it,” he said last week. “We’re going to shut everything down.”

The situation has created a political conundrum for Mr. Manchin’s party. Democrats badly need him to run for re-election if they have any realistic hope of retaining the seat and preserving their slim Senate majority. He has yet to commit to doing so, even as two Republicans — including the state’s governor, Jim Justice — have declared their intentions to seek it.

Instead, Mr. Manchin is openly flirting with running against Mr. Biden for president under the ticket of No Labels, a political organization backed by wealthy donors that bills itself as a centrist group. It has gained access to the presidential ballot in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Utah with the hopes of creating the possibility for Mr. Manchin — or another centrist — to run under its banner as an independent candidate.

“Make no mistake, I will win any race I enter,” Mr. Manchin declared shortly after Mr. Justice entered the Senate race.

Democrats regard the possibility of a Manchin presidential run as disastrous for the party, all but assuring that former President Donald J. Trump will win the 2024 election. But some recent polls have showed Mr. Biden trailing Mr. Trump, and some people close to Mr. Manchin say they believe he could have an opportunity if Mr. Biden looks destined to fail.

The senator appeared on a recent call with more than 200 donors in which there was talk of raising $70 million for a possible third-party run.

“To be the leader of the free world, you’ve got to lead,” Mr. Manchin told the donors, according to audio of the call obtained by Puck News.

People close to him see another motivation, too: If Mr. Manchin feels he is being effective on Capitol Hill and listened to by his party, he is more likely to run for re-election. If he feels frustrated with his party and miserable in the Senate, he is more likely to explore other options, they say.

Nancy Jacobson, the chief executive of No Labels, said her organization was trying to get a presidential nominee on the ballot in all 50 states as an “insurance policy” in case the two major parties nominated candidates most Americans did not support.

“If Biden wants to actually do a deal on the debt ceiling or Biden actually wants to solve the border and immigration and actually wants to solve these problems that the majority of Americans want solved, there won’t be room for us,” Ms. Jacobson said in an interview. “His numbers will go up, and we will go home.”

Mr. Manchin’s frustration with the Inflation Reduction Act began in December, when he learned that Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen would allow tax credits for a range of electric vehicles rather than confining them to commercial use, as he had wanted.

Treasury officials said they were simply following the law as written. But Mr. Manchin argued that was never his intent.

The credits, he wrote to Ms. Yellen, were “intended only for commercial use, and your department must follow congressional intent.”

In part because the tax credits for electric vehicles have proved tremendously popular, the legislation has grown significantly in cost, angering Mr. Manchin, who views himself as a deficit hawk. A large part of the increased cost is also because of the popularity of the manufacturing and energy tax credits in the bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law’s climate and clean energy tax credits will cost at least $180 billion more than originally forecast.

“When he voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Manchin had the reasonable expectation that the Biden administration would follow both the letter of the law and the clear intent of the agreements made, and he is understandably frustrated that the administration has instead broken and manipulated the law and its promise,” said Sam Runyon, a spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin.

The senator has also expressed concern that the Biden administration has been sluggish about approving leases for domestic energy production, arguing that officials have been reluctant to do so unless facing a court order. An administration official working on the rollout of the legislation said the White House “anticipates a number of sales over the coming months.”

Mr. Manchin has also railed against John Podesta, a White House senior adviser, whom he accused of making comments that were “beyond irresponsible” for saying Chinese companies would be “big players” in American energy production.

A White House official said the full context of Mr. Podesta’s remarks showed that he was making the case to strengthen and diversify American supply chains by moving them out of China.

Republicans have rushed to capitalize on the clash between Mr. Manchin and the Biden administration. The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently released an ad highlighting Mr. Manchin’s vow to repeal his own bill.

“The senator has stated clearly in West Virginia that he wrote the bill,” said Senator Shelly Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, who has endorsed Mr. Justice. “It’s unusual to want to repeal a bill that you’ve written, but I understand he’s finally realizing what we all know: If you leave it to this administration to write rules and regulations, they don’t adhere to the letter of the law.”

But Mr. Manchin plans to use whatever leverage he has to persuade the Biden administration to see things his way. His staff members have been talking to officials regularly, and he is known to call Mr. Podesta directly.

“When Joe Manchin says something, he’s genuinely sincere about it,” said Senator John Hickenlooper, Democrat of Colorado, who sits on the Energy Committee with Mr. Manchin. He added, “We definitely want to incentivize manufacturing back in this country, and that’s what Joe’s really fighting for.”