Climate Change Became the Central Part of Biden Spending Bill

WASHINGTON — Climate has emerged as the single largest category in President Biden’s new framework for a huge spending bill, placing global warming at the center of his party’s domestic agenda in a way that was hard to imagine just a few years ago.

As the bill was pared down from $3.5 trillion to $1.85 trillion, paid family leave, free community college, lower prescription drugs for seniors and other Democratic priorities were dropped — casualties of negotiations between progressives and moderates in the party. But $555 billion in climate programs remained.

It was unclear on Thursday if all Democrats will support the package, which will be necessary if it is to pass without Republican support in a closely divided Congress. Progressive Democrats in the House and two pivotal moderates in the Senate, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, did not explicitly endorse the president’s framework. But Mr. Biden expressed confidence that a deal was in sight.

If enacted, it would be the largest action ever taken by the United States to address climate change. And it would enshrine climate action in law, making it harder to be reversed by a future president.

In remarks Thursday, Mr. Biden called it “the most significant investment to deal with the climate crisis that ever happened, beyond any other advanced nation in the world.”

The centerpiece of the climate spending is $300 billion in tax incentives for producers and purchasers of wind, solar and nuclear power, inducements intended to speed up a transition away from oil, gas and coal. Buyers of electric vehicles would also benefit, receiving up to $12,500 in tax credits — depending on what portion of the vehicle parts were made in America.

The rest would be distributed among a mix of programs, including money to construct charging stations for electric vehicles and update the electric grid to make it more conducive to transmitting wind and solar power, and money to promote climate-friendly farming and forestry programs.

The plan would still fall short of the ambitious pledge Mr. Biden has made to halve the country’s greenhouse gases, from 2005 levels, by the end of this decade. Scientists say that nations must quickly and deeply cut emissions from burning oil, gas and coal to avert the most harrowing impacts of climate change.

As many of the social spending programs fell by the wayside, the primacy of climate remained during weeks of tense negotiations between the White House and progressive and centrist lawmakers.

The Windy Fire burning in Sequoia National Forest in California last month.Credit…Noah Berger/Associated Press

Mr. Manchin, who played an outsized role in shaping the debate, was able to kill the most powerful mechanism in Mr. Biden’s climate plan — a program that would have rewarded power companies that moved from fossil fuels to clean energy, and penalized those that did not. Mr. Manchin’s state is a top coal and gas producer, and he has personal financial ties to the coal industry.

But during negotiations, Democratic lawmakers of different political leanings all made climate policy a priority.

Rising activists and a sustained push

Many Democrats said they were newly energized to take on climate change after cascading climate disasters over the past year. Record droughts, flooding, wildfires and heat waves — which scientists said are worsened by climate change — devastated nearly every corner of the country.

Liberals and many moderates in Congress, including vulnerable House members in swing districts, pushed the administration to focus on the issue. One group of moderate House Democrats even suggested that Democrats not worry about offsetting climate spending with tax increases.

There was also a sustained drive inside the administration to elevate the issue. Mr. Biden has repeatedly linked cutting emissions to job creation, echoing the views of many of his top economic advisers, like Brian Deese, who heads the National Economic Council. Mr. Deese has said he sees the fate of America’s middle class over the coming decades entwined with the country’s ability to dominate the industries powering emissions reduction.

At the same time, a new generation of climate activists has been advising the president on his agenda, and warning lawmakers that they risk losing young voters if they do not act.

Mr. Biden seemed to nod at the generational aspect of the crisis on Thursday, when he spoke about meeting an electrical worker in Pittsburgh worried that climate change threatened his children’s future. “Folks, we all have that obligation, an obligation to our children and to our grandchildren,” Mr. Biden said.

In Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer instructed committee to draft climate change legislation that would meet Mr. Biden’s targets to cut emissions.

And Mr. Biden has been under growing pressure to demonstrate that the United States, as the country that has fueled climate change by emitted the most greenhouse gases, is taking action when he appears Monday at a pivotal United Nations summit on climate. Showing up empty-handed would damage the United States’ credibility on the world stage.

While advocates for family leave, lower prescription drugs and other policies lobbied hard for their causes, environmentalists felt an intense urgency, given the warnings by the scientific community that the world has only until the end of this decade to make significant cuts in carbon dioxide, methane and other emissions or face a harrowing future.

Kidus Girma, a 26-year-old from Dallas, is one of several activists who have been staging a hunger strike outside the White House and Capitol building for the past nine days to urge passage of climate legislation.

“If you look at the history of how politicians do what they have to on issues like civil rights and climate change, it wasn’t that politicians stepped up to the plate because they wanted to,” Mr. Girma said. “But because people forced them to.”

Sunrise Movement activists in Lafayette Square in Washington in June.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Changing climate politics

The push for climate action even by congressional moderates would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when former President Barack Obama tried and failed to enact climate legislation. That measure withered in the Senate after Democrats could not summon enough votes from their own party to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

“It’s so, so different now,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, who served in the Senate when Mr. Obama’s climate bill died.

Ms. Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that during the Obama administration, she could not get political support for a climate bill from farmers.

“That’s completely changed today,” she said. “Today, we have every major agricultural group, and food companies, and researchers supporting a climate bill. What I’m hearing now from farmers is, yes, you’re absolutely right, the climate crisis is real. But we need help on what to do about it.”

Like many in her party, Ms. Stabenow attributes the new urgency in climate politics to the rise of extreme and deadly weather.

The past two years have only underscored that case: there were 22 climate disasters that cost at least $1 billion each in the United States in 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Flooding on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx after Hurricane Ida blew through in September.Credit…Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

That record is on track to be broken again this year. This summer, the hottest on record in the nation, saw record wildfires devastate large swathes of California and a deadly heat wave bake the Pacific Northwest. Once-in-200-year flash floods killed dozens of people in New York and New Jersey.

The disasters spurred a new awareness of the warming planet among many Americans. And during the 2020 presidential campaign, environmental activists sought to leverage those rising concerns.

In particular, the Sunrise Movement, an activist group, convinced nearly every candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to endorse the Green New Deal, a plan that would have eliminated the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade. Although Mr. Biden didn’t embrace the entire program, he endorsed portions of it.

After Mr. Biden clinched his party’s nomination, Varshini Prakash, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, joined the team that crafted his climate policy.

“We built a political movement and changed the political weather to make climate the North Star of the Democratic Party,” said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for Sunrise.

An early push

As soon as Democrats on Capitol Hill secured a razor-thin majority in early 2020, their leaders began laying the groundwork for a climate plan.

The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York had never been a particular champion of climate action.

But that changed when he took control of the Senate.

“I will fight for a big, bold climate package,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview in late 2020. “And as leader, will be focused on assembling a climate package that meets the scale and the scope of the problem.”

Mr. Schumer tasked Democrats on the Senate committees responsible for tax policy to craft climate-related tax legislation that could be bundled into a larger budget bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arriving at the Capitol on Wednesday.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

Mr. Schumer’s staff developed a computer modeling tool to evaluate the impact on emissions of every piece of potential climate legislation. As climate policies were crafted, Mr. Schumer’s staff ran them through the program to determine how many tons of greenhouse gas they would eliminate — and as climate policies were dropped, they used the software to quickly identify replacement programs that would achieve similar levels of emissions cuts.

Mr. Schumer tasked Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to prepare a package of about $300 billion clean energy tax credits that would measurably reduce emissions.

Mr. Schumer and other Democrats tried to win Mr. Manchin’s support on another critical climate policy: a $150 billion program that would have paid electric utilities to rapidly shut down coal and gas-fired power plants and replace them with wind and solar generators.

But just two weeks from the U.N. climate summit in Scotland, Mr. Manchin told the White House that he was opposed to the clean electricity program. At the same time, he demanded that the overall bill be slashed, from $3.5 trillion to roughly $1.5 trillion.

As White House and congressional staffers sought to shrink the package, activists and members of Congress, including Ms. Pelosi, insisted that the climate provisions be protected.

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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