Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has had his hands full managing the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling out the most aggressive vaccination drive in U.S. history. This month, congressional Democrats muscled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan across the finish line, passing the first major bill of the Biden administration without a single Republican vote. With the first legislative hurdle of 2021 out of the way, the Biden team is reportedly turning to another time-sensitive crisis: climate change.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that Biden’s economic advisers are preparing to unveil a set of recommendations that will guide Biden’s agenda for the next several months. The advisers, according to documents obtained by the Times, will suggest that the president split his “Build Back Better” plan, the jobs and economic recovery platform he campaigned on, into at least two major pieces of legislation. The first will focus on physical infrastructure — repairing the nation’s roads, bridges, and tunnels, as well as investing heavily in clean energy, jobs training, and energy-efficient housing. The second will fortify the nation’s “human infrastructure,” investing in programs to help workers, parents, students, and children. In total, the two-pronged package could cost more than $3 trillion.
The first prong, the climate-centered spending program, is what the Biden administration is expected to focus on in the near term. It looks a bit like the Green New Deal that progressives including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced the famous climate resolution in 2019, have been advocating for. About $1 trillion will be funneled toward the obvious parts of America’s infrastructure that need help — bridges, roads, pipes, power grids, railroads, and an expanded network of electric vehicle charging stations. Significant spending would also be directed toward “high-growth industries of the future” like 5G telecommunications and renewable energy innovation and deployment. There would even be funding for a million energy-efficient and affordable housing units. The idea is to shore up the nation’s ailing infrastructure and slash carbon emissions at the same time.
None of this is set in stone. First, Biden has to sign off on the plan his advisers drew up. He’s on the record endorsing all of the ideas under the $3 trillion umbrella, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be enthused about breaking his Build Back Better plan into pieces. After the soft launch in the New York Times, Biden’s advisers will introduce the plan to the president and legislative leaders this week.
If Democrats embrace the piecemeal approach, the next step is to figure out how to get the proposal through the 50-50 Senate. Democrats were able to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill via an obscure process called budget reconciliation, which allows legislators to incorporate spending and tax measures into the federal budget — and to bypass the filibuster process that allows the minority party to block any Senate bill that doesn’t have 60 votes. But the rules that govern the budget reconciliation process are strict. Democrats who were hoping that the COVID-19 relief bill would include a $15 federal minimum wage were disappointed when the parliamentarian, the person in charge of deciding what is “budget germane” or not, ruled that the minimum wage requirement did not meet the budget reconciliation guidelines. Portions of Biden’s infrastructure plan could meet a similar fate in the offices of the House and Senate parliamentarians.
Budget reconciliation is supposed to be a backdoor solution to getting bills passed anyway. And with politicians on both sides of the aisle claiming to care about infrastructure, it shouldn’t be a problem for Congress to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But in today’s polarized political environment, it’s a tall order. Former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama both promised to fix the nation’s infrastructure and couldn’t make it happen.
Then again, Republican and Democratic leadership are facing new pressure from their respective caucasus to come up with bipartisan solutions to congressional gridlock. Moderate Senate Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and others have signaled that they have an appetite for climate action. Moderate Democrats in the Senate, namely Joe Manchin of West Virginia, want Biden to foster the kind of bipartisan collaboration he promised on the campaign trail and has been advocating for since.
A major roadblock stands in the way of bipartisanship: Biden’s team is proposing that some or all of the $3 trillion infrastructure proposal be paid for by raising taxes on corporations and possibly individuals who make more than $400,000 per year. If there’s one thing Republicans hate, it’s tax hikes. “I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week.
Over the next few weeks, Biden will have to make a fraught political calculation: water down his climate infrastructure package so that it appeals to Republicans or try to get the whole enchilada passed without Republican support. The former is a gamble — there’s no guaranteeing McConnell will rally his troops around a Democratic bill no matter how weak it is. The latter is also tricky — Biden risks alienating voters and some key members of his own party by going it alone. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says it’s too early to say how the White House aims to drum up support for this bill. “Any speculation about future economic proposals is premature and not a reflection of the White House’s thinking,” she said. Whatever ends up happening, one thing is almost certain: Climate change is back on the menu in Congress.