President Joe Biden has found himself caught in the middle of the Democratic Party on environmental issues despite presenting a broad green agenda, a tension that remains unresolved as he prepares to seek a second term.
Biden has tried to govern with narrow Democratic majorities that have given outsized influence to a state fossil fuel centrist, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), while dealing with a host of domestic and international conditions: the war in Ukraine , last year’s peak. gas prices, inflation, OPEC+ production cuts, which have forced him to go slower than he would prefer to pursue his green agenda.
PRICE TAG OF BIDEN’S SIGNATURE CLIMATE ACT BALLOONS AT MULTIPLE EARLY ESTIMATES
Liberals who hoped that Build Back Better would be a down payment on the Green New Deal have been disappointed, while a much smaller number of centrists, along with the vast majority of Republicans, believe that Biden has not done enough to boost the production of US energy.
That problem hasn’t abated this year, even as Republicans took control of the House. Manchin was joined by Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), who is still with Democrats in Senate, voting with Republicans to overturn a Biden administration water rule.
Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with Democrats, joined Manchin in voting to rescind a Biden administration regulation that expanded the definition of critical habitat for an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sided with Manchin and Republicans in overturning certain protections for the long-eared bat.
Although Democrats slightly expanded their Senate majority to 51-49 from a deadlocked chamber that forced Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties, Biden has lost all of those resolutions because of Democratic defections.
If anything, the political math has become more difficult because of a Republican House and a handful of red-state Democratic senators running for re-election in 2024 at the same time as Biden. They are mostly more popular than the president in their home states, while committed progressives represent safe blue districts.
Even last year’s biggest green legislative victory, the passage of the Build Back Better Ash Inflation Reduction Act, sold to progressives as a climate bill, has become the source of internal fights. Manchin has been fighting Biden’s Treasury Department over the implementation of his tax credits for electric vehicles. The authorization reforms Manchin wanted in exchange for the legislation remain stalled.
However, Biden has not missed things that have also outraged the environmentalist left. When the administration moved forward with an oil lease auction, the White House was outraged that it had broken its promises on climate change. “I woke up today outraged, but not surprised, that Biden chose to pander to fossil fuel companies over our futures,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the environmental movement Sunrise Movement, said in 2021.
The Biden administration’s support for an Alaskan oil drilling project first approved under former President Donald Trump has prompted an even more negative response from environmental groups. “It’s a serious misstep to hand over administrative authority to restrict an out-of-control oil industry while addressing a Congress stalled for climate action,” GreenPeace USA’s John Noel told Reuters.
Higher energy prices prompted Biden to let ConocoPhillips build its Willow oil project on federal land. But the oil industry continued to flout the administration for unpredictability while green groups revolted.
However, it is the divisions among Democrats that have posed Biden’s biggest challenge. Environmental policy was among the issues on which Biden made promises to both progressives who had backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for president and suburban voters looking for a compromise.
That’s why various factions of the Democratic Party saw Biden as a kindred spirit for the environment. When Build Back Better was still in play, before it was killed by Manchin, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) summed up the progressive dilemma.
“One thing I’m really excited about is that I think we’ve been able to influence a lot of thinking about climate and infrastructure,” he said. “As much as I think some parts of the party try to avoid saying ‘Green New Deal’ and really dance and try not to use that term, ultimately the framework I think has been adopted.”
But that wasn’t Ocasio-Cortez’s only remark about the doomed Biden reconciliation bill.
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“The size is disappointing. It’s not enough,” he said.
But with a tiny majority in the Senate and a lack of Democratic unanimity before an election year, perhaps it should be.