Republican debt bill, climate cuts get Senate thrashing

By Emma Dumain | 05/05/2023 06:20 AM EDT

Senate Budget Committee members had pointed words about the House-passed bill raising the debt ceiling and its energy provisions.

Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks with Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) during a hearing on debt ceiling legislation Thursday. Francis Chung/POLITICO

How far apart are Republicans and Democrats on the debt limit crisis? Very, very far, if a Thursday hearing on the matter is any indication.

On the Republican side, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah scoffed that the proceedings of the Senate Budget Committee were “really embarrassing.” Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas poked at Democrats in wanting to know who was America’s “climate god.” (He suggested two climate-focused former Democratic presidential nominees.)

The man who convened the hearing, Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), spent most of his time in attack mode on Republicans. He called the recently passed House GOP debt limit plan as one “cobbled together by House extremists in backrooms in the dark of night.”


The sharp words came as the country zooms toward a debt default that may arrive as soon as June 1. If Congress cannot craft a solution to raise the country’s borrowing authority by then, expert witnesses said Thursday at the hearing, the fallout could be widespread and resonate for years.

Specifically, those witnesses predicted mass job losses and climate devastation, among other calamities, if the House Republican debt limit proposal were to be signed into law.

The warnings about H.R. 2811, the “Limit, Save, Grow Act” — the GOP plan that would raise the debt limit but cut clean energy tax credits that have spurred a domestic manufacturing boom and slash a fee on methane emissions that are toxic to the environment — provided plenty of ammunition for Democrats.

The Budget hearing, provocatively titled “The Default on America Act: Blackmail, Brinkmanship, and Billionaire Backroom Deals,” was touted by Senate Democratic leadership as the first of what could be several hearings over the coming weeks to spotlight the House Republican product.

The timing was also helpful for Democrats, as it offered a formal venue for a rebuttal in advance of a meeting scheduled at the White House between President Joe Biden and bipartisan congressional leaders. At that summit, Republicans are expected to double down on the House-passed plan, while Democrats will call for a “clean” debt ceiling increase.

The Treasury Department warned on Monday that the nation could max out its borrowing authority as early as June 1. At the hearing, Mark Zandi, a chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, predicted June 8 would be the so-called X date for breaching the debt ceiling.

In any event, time is running out to come up with a deal, and Democrats are building the case against Republican demands for spending cuts and policy riders.

Climate focus

Mark Zandi.
Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi on Capitol Hill on Thursday. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Whitehouse, who has made the economic costs of the climate crisis the centerpiece of the Budget Committee under his chairmanship, framed the Republican plan in that context. He called the bill a “field day for polluters,” with “275 of the 315 pages of the dirty ‘Default on America’ bill are devoted to giveaways to the fossil fuel industry.”

In addition to repealing the new clean energy tax incentives that were codified in the Inflation Reduction Act, Republicans in their debt limit bill included the entirety of H.R. 1, the “Lower Energy Costs Act,” which would expand domestic energy production, including oil and gas drilling and mineral extraction activities.

Zandi, who predicted enactment of the “Limit, Save, Grow Act” would result in the loss of 800,000 jobs in the years to follow, told reporters after the hearing that this figure accounted for the clean energy workforce that would be diminished as a result of dried-up investments in the absence of the Inflation Reduction Act tax incentives.

Solar Energy Industries Association President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said that since enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act last year, upwards of 40 new electric vehicle battery manufacturing sites — and 22 factory expansions — have come online in the United States.

“Collectively these factories … represent tens of billions of dollars in new investments and 100,000 homegrown jobs across the country,” she said. “Any threat to the IRA is a threat to these factories and these jobs.”

H.R. 1 would also repeal the Inflation Reduction Act’s methane fee, which Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp framed the protection against methane leaks a matter of national security.

“At a time of uncertainty and instability in global energy,” he said, “allowing companies to waste this energy resource is unconscionable.”

Some lawmakers have said the looming debt ceiling deadline could pressure lawmakers to accelerate work on bipartisan goals, including energy infrastructure permitting reform. But that sentiment was not evident during Thursday’s session.

Hope for green tax credits

The “Limit, Save, Grow Act” will not become law in its current form — Biden has threatened to veto it — but Democrats are nonetheless determined to point out its failings to weaken the Republican negotiating position ahead of the May 9 White House meeting.

Hopper, in an interview following the hearing, also said it was important for her group and other advocates to make their opposition known and raise awareness about the impact of the policies Republicans were supporting.

All but four House Republicans voted on the debt limit bill, and an E&E News analysis found that at least 21 projects in Republican-led districts were a result of benefits from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Since the House bill’s passage, Hopper said, “I think perhaps there was a fair amount of education happening about the impact that the clean energy elements are having in their districts already,” said Hopper.

She added that SEIA’s motivation was also to make sure Republicans wouldn’t keep trying to repeal the tax credits in the future, now that they know the damage their repeal would cause back at home: “We’re hoping this is a one-and-done proposition.”

Whitehouse, at one point during the hearing, submitted for the record a list of the Budget Committee members whose states have seen a clean energy job boom since passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, using data provided by advocacy group Climate Power.

At another moment, he held up a sign of quotes from lawmakers praising the projects in their districts made possible by the tax credits they sought to scrap: “Freeze-frame that and read it at your leisure,” he urged viewers watching a live stream of the hearing remotely.

‘Preening’ and ‘posturing’

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) on Thursday. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Senate Republicans who chose to participate in the Budget Committee hearing fought back.

“If you really want to encourage [and] care about working Americans, why wouldn’t you want to do something about the terrible energy policies of this administration and the terrible spending polies of this administration that has raised inflation to 40-year high and gas prices to a historic high last year,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel’s ranking member.

Grassley’s invited witness — Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute — argued that policy concessions and spending decreases have accompanied debt ceiling deals in previous Congresses, in which case the House GOP proposal was not unprecedented.

Romney said the committee “ought to be embarrassed” that it was holding a hearing for the purposes of “preening and … political posturing and trying to blame the other party” instead of crafting a budget resolution.

And Marshall railed against the Democrats’ green agenda broadly.

“Jupiter is the Roman god of climate and weather,” he said. “Indra was the Hindu god; Horus the Egyptian god of climate and weather; Zeus, the Greek mythology god. I asked you: Who is America’s climate god. Is it John Kerry? Is it Al Gore?

“Why do we get this religious experience with climate rather than using common sense?” Marshall continued. “Today’s White House, the Democratic Party, became the European Green Socialist Party. That’s who they are today. They were supplanted.”