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Manchin's Choice

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

When Joe Biden was elected president in November, it seemed like he would enter the White House with his hands tied behind his back. The Republicans had increased their numbers in the House of Representatives and were on the verge of keeping their majority in the Senate. All they had to do was win one of two runoff elections in Georgia. To the surprise of many pundits, the Republicans lost both elections. Once the two victorious Democrats take their seats in the Senate, there will be a 50-50 tie, which can be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, giving the Democrats control of the Senate by just one vote. A single Democratic defection will doom any initiative that President-elect Biden wants the Senate to pass.

In the eyes of many political observers, the most likely defector from any Democratic bill will be West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the incoming chair of the powerful Senate Energy Committee. Manchin is among the most conservative of Democrats, and the sole Democrat to hold office in a heavily Republican state. He opposes packing the Supreme Court, opposes eliminating the filibuster, and responded to calls to defund the police with “defund, my butt.” If Manchin opposes any climate plan, then that plan will be dead in the water, and Kamala Harris will be unable to use her tie-breaking power to save it.

Manchin’s Climate Politics

Joe Manchin’s first and foremost concern when it comes to climate policy is protecting the coal industry. Coal is a major part of West Virginia’s economy, and Manchin knows that if he supported a bill that negatively impacted the coal industry (such as the Green New Deal, which calls for phasing out all fossil fuels), he would be phased out of his job by the people of West Virginia. In one of his campaign ads, Manchin shot a bullet through a copy of a cap-and-trade bill. He opposed Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the Paris Climate Agreement.

At the same time, Manchin is no climate change denier. He recognizes that climate change is a serious threat, and supports an “all of the above” energy policy that includes renewables. And while an “all of the above” policy was something Democrats were happy to tout during the Obama presidency, many Democrats are now hesitant to support any policy that has room for fossil fuels. If those Democrats want to pass a climate bill, they will have to adjust themselves to Manchin’s concerns and make sure that the coal industry is taken care of. If they can make those adjustments, Democrats may find that Manchin is willing to compromise. Manchin is good friends with Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the staunchest climate hawks in the Senate, and environmental activists have acknowledged that Manchin’s views have evolved positively since he entered the Senate in 2010 (for example, Manchin no longer supports mountaintop removal mining).

What the Senate Could Pass

The surest way for any climate bill to win Manchin’s approval would be for that bill to leave the coal industry alone. The bill would have to focus exclusively on promoting renewables rather than regulating and fining fossil fuels. If, for example, the bill directed subsidies for solar and wind jobs in West Virginia, Democrats could sleep soundly knowing that Manchin would support the bill. The bad news is that a bill that kept alive one of the dirtiest fossil fuels would be opposed by progressive Democrats. If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found that her supporters thought a climate bill didn’t go far enough, she would have a good reason to oppose it, and she’d only need to bring along a handful of her colleagues in the House and just one in the Senate in order to kill the bill.

One possibility that might pique Manchin’s interest would be a bill to develop carbon capture technology. This technology could mean that coal plants that employ thousands of West Virginians could keep firing without emitting carbon. Manchin would be able to sell this to voters in West Virginia as a way of keeping their industry alive and tackling climate change at the same time.

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