Manchin and Sinema are playing Russian roulette with the planet's future

Manchin and Sinema are playing Russian roulette with the planet's future
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) // CBS News

The House and Senate are out for most of this week, observing Indigenous People's Day/Columbus Day. The House, however, will have a short session Tuesday to finish the job of temporarily lifting the debt ceiling, taking up the bill the Senate passed last week to extend the nation's borrowing limit to pay its bills until December 3.

The hellish Fall we could see coming back in August is fully upon us, with Senate Republicans stretching out their sabotage for maximum effect. They didn't shut down the government on October 1 but agreed to a continuing resolution to keep funds flowing for government operations until December 3. Yes, the same day the debt ceiling will have to be dealt with. Republican leader Mitch McConnell is going to drag the pain out as long as possible. His primary aim remains to be forcing Democrats to deal with the debt ceiling in their budget reconciliation bill, the package they are using to pass President Joe Biden's big human infrastructure bill. He's trying to derail that bill, with an assist from Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, by making the perceived cost too high for the deficit peacocks.

Never mind that the original price tag of the bill isn't that big, relatively. Yes, $3.5 trillion sounds like a lot of money, but it's just 1.2% of the nation's economy over ten years. What is getting lost in the reporting, almost everywhere, is that the bill as written covers 10 years of spending and taxes—and that the taxes part of it could pay the whole thing. And while the traditional media, with a big boost from Republicans and the aforementioned turncoat Democrats, is entirely focused on that number, it is missing the larger story: the costs of not acting in a big way, particularly on the environment, but also for greater racial and economic equality.

While Manchin is making public noise about the human infrastructure side of the package, trying to force Democrats to decide among priorities for helping working families, it's on the climate side, where Manchin is doing his worst.

Manchin makes $500,000 every year from coal investments (more than $5.2 million over the past decade from coal investments). He is also the top recipient among Democrats for fossil fuel industry dollars and the number-one recipient for the coal, mining, natural gas, and oil and gas industries.

One of Manchin's confirmed demands in return for his vote is that the Energy and Natural Resources committee, which he chairs, has "sole" jurisdiction on writing a clean energy standard—presumably locking out other committees and lawmakers, as well as the Department of Energy and government experts. He's resisting the administration's efforts to accelerate the transition to clean energy generation and is continuing to push energy legislation that includes "all energy sources."

In a hearing on September 28, he reiterated that. "I believe that natural gas has an important role in the energy transition," he said, arguing that helping utilities switch to renewables would somehow create electrical grid instability. "If we give them and pay them incentives to basically change their portfolio by 2030, reliability will be the loser." According to the Energy Information Administration, 76% of new electricity generation in the country came from renewable, clean sources. The one glaring example of a highly unreliable grid system came last winter in Texas, which gets most of its grid power from gas-fired plants.

Manchin demands that any tax credits granted for solar and wind power can only be included if "fossil tax credits are not repealed." That puts him in direct opposition to his Democratic colleagues. "I'm not interested in rewarding oil and gas companies who have had 100 years of tax benefits when we weren't providing other benefits to other types of energy," Sen. Debbie Stabenow from Michigan said. That's despite her work with Manchin on a separate initiative to provide tax credits for manufacturing industries to use clean energy.

Manchin's even demanding that "[v]ehicle and fuel tax credits shall not be limited to electric vehicles—they must include hydrogen." That's because hydrogen fuel cells require electricity to be produced, and, at least right now, that would be done through natural gas or coal-fired electric plants. "The overwhelming majority of hydrogen in use today is produced via an emissions-intensive, fossil fuel-based approach, and there are a multitude of cost hurdles, resource constraints, and pollution-heavy alternatives standing in the way of such a pivot to green," Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has pointed out.

All that's spelled out in an "agreement" Manchin came to with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in July, in which Manchin demanded Democrats slash the whole package to $1.5 trillion, and accommodate a whole series of other demands. Schumer noted in signing the document that he "will try to dissuade Joe on many of these." He'll be backed up by other Democrats in both the Senate and House.

For example, another powerful Senate chair is Oregon's Ron Wyden, and his Finance Committee—in charge of tax-writing—has a say in writing energy tax credits. Wyden told Roll Call that he'll be talking to Manchin about his desires, but also "that the days of fossil fuel companies getting whatever handouts they seek are over."

Manchin still has a big stake in the bipartisan bill that he and Sinema helped negotiate. Here's where the commitment of leadership—and the White House—to link the two bills remains so vital. Without bending, Manchin is jeopardizing his bill, and he's not doing a great job of courting fellow Democrats. "It is possible to find middle ground in many areas of politics," Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said at an event Thursday. "I know because I have done it, but we cannot compromise on science. There isn't a middle ground between a livable and unlivable world. We cannot pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill without the reconciliation package. We cannot slash climate funding in this package."

There's also the majority in the House, which is not in the mood to take nonsense from Manchin or Sinema. They proved that in an October 1 meeting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in which they decided they are not prepared to "give an inch publicly" despite pressure from Biden to start carving away their priorities. "We're at the table," the CPC chairwoman Rep. Pramila Jayapal reportedly told the group. "Do not negotiate against ourselves." That's what the group is doing, at least for now—standing together under pressure. "I've made it really clear to the caucus, and people agree. The reason we got to where we got to is because we took a collective position," Jayapal told the Washington Post. "And we have to stay collective in our asks."

That feeds into a growing narrative from the progressives that they're not the ones preventing Biden's package from passing and succeeding—it's the centrists. The progressives are those who will push Biden's agenda through. "This isn't a moderate versus progressive conversation, it's a 96% versus 4% conversation," Jayapal said. "So there's no point to negotiate against ourselves."

That echoed Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's been on a tear against Manchin and Sinema for a few weeks.

It only helps McConnell to have Manchin and Sinema in there negotiating (or not, in Sinema's case—she still won't say what she does or doesn't want to see in the package, beyond having "sources" tell The New York Times that she wants $100 billion in climate protection slashed).

It helps McConnell, and dooms the planet.

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