The Joe Manchin Problem In This Climate Moment

Will bold action be thwarted by the bipartisan fantasies of a West Virginia senator?

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Climate and Energy

PHOTO CC-BY © SENATE DEMOCRATS / FLICKR.COM

by Peter Hart

After getting a massive recovery plan through Congress, the Biden administration unveiled its next move: A $2.3 trillion dollar jobs and infrastructure proposal that prioritizes a host of clean energy initiatives and upgrades to our water systems. While the package — dubbed the American Jobs Plan — would be progress after four years of Trump, it falls short of what we truly need to tackle these crises. That’s why activists and some Democratic lawmakers are already demanding more.

As this unfolds, Democratic lawmakers are keenly aware of the need to please one of their own: West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. But appeasing Manchin cannot come at the expense of climate action and environmental justice.

Manchin has already shown that he’s willing to act as a spoiler, or at least threaten to do so. His initial reluctance to support the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID recovery plan led to a last minute scramble; in the end, Manchin voted with the rest of the party, but only after “winning” a reduction in unemployment benefits. And during the legislative debate over that relief bill, Manchin also emerged as one of the loudest opponents of increasing the federal minimum wage.

Manchin’s Fossil Fuel Friendly Record is a Problem

When it comes to climate action and halting the fossil fuel industry, we don’t need to wait for any upcoming votes to understand where Manchin is coming from. In February he wrote two letters to Biden; one urged the president to reconsider his executive order stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, while the other touting fracked gas as a boon to “our nation’s energy security” that could fuel a surge of new petrochemical facilities. And before the White House rolled out its American Jobs Plan, Manchin was vowing that any deal needed to draw Republican support — an exceptionally unlikely prospect. “I’m not going to do it through reconciliation,” he said.

This has left many to lament the fact that Manchin holds what amounts to ‘veto power’ over the entire Biden legislative agenda. It is not yet clear whether he really intends to use it to thwart a golden opportunity to create millions of jobs and build the clean energy economy of the future. Manchin knows that he holds considerable sway; as he recently told a radio host in his home state, “If I don’t vote to get on it, it’s not going anywhere.” 

But a Powerful Climate Movement Can Win In Spite Of The Manchin Problem

What is crystal clear, though, is that the politics around the climate crisis have swung dramatically in favor of real action. A little over a decade ago, Manchin’s Senate campaign included a commercial where he quite literally shot a copy of the failed Obama-backed cap and trade bill. So It’s a sign of real progress that lawmakers nowadays are backing substantially more ambitious proposals than were being pushed back then. And even more importantly, the grassroots movement demanding real action is even more powerful.

When push comes to shove, the climate movement — and the absolute necessity of coming up with a bold plan to get off fossil fuels — will prove to be more powerful than a single senator.

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