Senate Dems huddle on climate as reconciliation deadline nears

By Nick Sobczyk, Emma Dumain | 12/15/2021 06:40 AM EST

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the Capitol yesterday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the Capitol yesterday. Francis Chung/E&E News

With a self-imposed deadline fast approaching, more than a dozen Senate Democrats huddled with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday to discuss the climate portion of their massive social spending package.

But lawmakers emerged no closer to a deal on a handful of key provisions, including a methane fee and a new electric vehicle tax credit.

It was another signal that negotiations with Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — and the Senate parliamentarian — are plodding along, despite high hopes among Democrats that they can pass the $1.7 trillion reconciliation bill before Christmas.

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"We’re making progress, but it’s a tough slog," Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told E&E News after the meeting. "We’ve got to get to 50 votes. It was a late night last night slogging through it, and it will be a late night tonight and will be a late night every night until we get it onto the floor."

For the past few weeks, Schumer has been hosting meetings regularly with a group that includes nearly every Senate climate hawk. Yesterday’s meeting included Wyden, Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), along with Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Senators revealed little about what was discussed, but they framed it as an update on where things currently stand. They also said their discussion did not offer a resolution on outstanding climate issues at a pivotal moment during larger negotiations, nor did it shed much light on Manchin’s individual negotiations with President Biden.

The fact that Manchin is now directly negotiating with Biden, and not with his own colleagues on Capitol Hill, has also left Senate Democrats largely on the sidelines, waiting to hear how the Senate’s most important swing vote wants to proceed.

In a nod to those talks, Schumer avoided reaffirming his commitment to wrapping up the bill before the holidays.

"The bottom line is, right now, there are good discussions going on," Schumer told reporters at his weekly press conference, when asked whether he would guarantee that the bill would pass by Christmas. "As I said, we’re moving forward with progress. The president’s been speaking with Sen. Manchin, and I look forward to hearing about further progress."

‘The heavy lifting has been done’

Chief among Democrats’ climate concerns is the methane fee, and Manchin remains an obstacle, despite signs that negotiators could be nearing a deal.

Manchin confirmed that he’d spoken with Biden “briefly” yesterday and that “there have been a lot of conversations” about the methane fee.

Before the bill passed the House last month, Democrats struck a deal on the provision with Manchin and other moderates that would pair a fee on excess methane emissions, rising to $1,500 per ton in 2025, with $775 in subsidies for the oil and gas industry. Manchin, however, has voiced new concerns in recent weeks about how the fee would potentially overlap with EPA methane regulations (E&E Daily, Dec. 10).

Carper reiterated yesterday that his committee has "made some further improvements" to the policy in negotiations with the West Virginian.

"I think most of the heavy lifting has been done, and I think we have a good compromise," Carper told reporters. "And my hope and expectation is we’ll vote on it as part of a bigger package and that it will be accepted."

Manchin, however, said he hadn’t seen anything “final” in a methane compromise, adding — with a smile, as he entered a waiting car outside the Capitol last night — that “I just have a little bit of input.”

The methane fee is one of several policies that are now largely in Manchin’s hands. He’s also the chief opponent of a new $4,500 tax credit for union-made electric vehicles that is supported by Michigan lawmakers looking to boost major American automakers in their state. Stabenow yesterday said that provision remains "a big question."

‘Don’t want to be overconfident’

Democrats could be poised to offer some additional answers to those questions in the coming days. Senate committees are continuing to release text for their portions of the reconciliation bill, as they undergo the so-called Byrd bath with the parliamentarian that ensures each provision complies with strict procedural rules.

EPW has not released text and a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for its section, nor has Manchin’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Finance Committee offered up draft text over the weekend — with the union-made tax credit included — but Wyden has stressed that it’s still subject to change in negotiations (E&E Daily, Dec. 13).

Republicans will be looking to strike whatever they can from each committee bill in a series of bipartisan meetings with the parliamentarian this week, but they’re also lobbying Manchin to kill the package altogether.

"All it takes is one Democrat to put the brakes on and stop this thing dead in its tracks," Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters yesterday.

Schatz, emerging from yesterday’s meeting with Schumer, summed up the uncertainty Democrats are dealing with as they attempt to push the package down the home stretch.

“I think we‘re close,” Schatz said. “[But] we’ve been close for a while. … Things look reasonably good, but I don’t want to be overconfident here.”

Reporters Jeremy Dillon and George Cahlink contributed.

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