President Joe Biden is sidestepping an almost-certain bruising confirmation battle for his new international climate adviser. And he’s doing it with a mere change in job title.
John Podesta, who was tapped Wednesday to take over for outgoing U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, will have a slightly different job description than that of his predecessor. But it’s one that could make a world of difference.
As senior adviser to the president for international climate policy, Podesta, who is already a senior adviser helping Biden implement the Inflation Reduction Act, will apparently not be subject to a recently enacted law that would force special envoys to be subject to Senate confirmation.
Senate Republicans, who have railed against perceived power grabs from the executive branch, are not pleased.
“It’s one of those times when you don’t want to give up your prerogative,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member on the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said Thursday of the idea that the chamber wouldn’t confirm Kerry’s replacement.
Republicans are already on guard, having soured long ago on the White House’s approach to climate policy over the last three years.
“They’re always circumventing the Congress on environmental policy,” said Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) of the Biden administration, adding that Podesta’s new duties were “just more of the same.”
This wasn’t a problem for Biden in 2021, when he first appointed Kerry as the president’s top climate diplomat under the umbrella of the State Department.
Since that time, however, a provision of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law that would require all special envoys going forward to be subject to the Senate confirmation process — a fate that in the current political environment could result in months of a position remaining unfilled.
The White House has not explained its rationale to give Podesta a new title rather than nominate him in an official capacity to serve as the next special climate envoy. Biden administration spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment from E&E News on its thinking.
A White House official, in a statement, said Podesta’s post was one in which he will “continue to oversee the talented team implementing the Inflation Reduction Act,” while also “dedicat[ing] a significant amount of time to international climate policy — working in coordination with the strong team at the State Department — representing the United States as a fierce champion for bold climate action.”
In other words, the job description, that of a White House special adviser, is devoid of the criteria that would subject Podesta to Senate confirmation.
‘Hard to justify’
Still, the political dynamics on Capitol Hill that might have influenced the White House’s decision on Podesta’s position are difficult to ignore, along with Democrats’ razor-thin majority that makes even a handful of Democratic holdouts on Biden nominees enormously consequential.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has joined with Republicans to torch numerous Biden nominees for the positions within the Energy and Interior departments and EPA over larger environmental policy disagreements.
On Thursday, Manchin said it “wouldn’t be a bad idea” for the Senate to have a say in who succeeds Kerry as Biden’s top global climate diplomat, given that the president’s “climate people … [are] taking us down a perilous path that’s going to be hard to justify” — a signal of what Podesta’s prospects looked like as a formal nominee for a cabinet posting.
Podesta’s appointment, which will occur when Kerry departs this spring, will also ensure that a key player in the Biden administration’s efforts to identify and engage international partners to fight climate change would not go unfilled at a critical time.
Both planetary and political considerations are at play: Greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to warm the earth at alarming rates and Biden needs to appeal to young, progressive voters who want him to take decisive climate action on the world stage.
“We’ve got IRA implementation; we have commitments that were made [at COP 28] in Dubai,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in a recent interview. “There’s a lot going on right now.”
‘I assume they’ll comply with the law’
Not every Senate Republican who serves on a committee with jurisdiction over the issues the climate envoy touches — the environment, foreign affairs and budgetary matters — had time by Thursday to process the news about Podesta, which had been made public less than 24 hours earlier.
Those unfamiliar with the development included Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who championed the defense bill provision subjecting special envoys to the confirmation process going forward.
“We’ve got a law on that now, so I assume they’ll comply with the law,” he said of the White House, before adding, “I’d want to know a lot more before I comment.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Foreign Relations member who last week accused Kerry of running point on an “irrational and extreme” climate policy coming out of the Oval Office, was likewise circumspect on what his demands would be when it came to having a say in Kerry’s successor.
Another panel member, Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), likewise declined to comment Thursday. In the past, he has called Kerry “despicable” and “out of touch.”
Besides anger, there’s ultimately little any lawmaker can do to thwart Podesta’s appointment.
In the House, Republicans could haul him before their committees in attempts to score political points ahead of the November elections; in both chambers, lawmakers could try to defund or defang the position through the appropriations process, though those efforts would not be signed into law.
They could also slow down the confirmation of other nominees, related or otherwise, in retribution, which would constitute more of an inconvenience than an insurmountable obstacle.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of Foreign Relations, took an opposite view from that of his colleagues: The Senate confirms too many nominees to begin with and shouldn’t waste its time on Podesta.
“Reducing the number of confirmations makes sense to me, and the need to confirm a climate envoy doesn’t rise to the point” of concern, he said.
Reporter Sara Schonhardt contributed.
This story also appears in Climatewire.