Budget Tool Gives Climate Bill a Path Forward if Democrats Sweep

  • Murkowski open to carbon pricing discussion
  • Whitehouse sees action on infrastructure, technology

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Democrats see a path to pass climate change legislation in the next Congress if they gain control of the Senate and Joe Biden is elected president, a leading climate hawk said.

“I think it’s important to seek and pursue bipartisanship, and do so sincerely, but I think this is an urgent enough problem that we have to go forward if we can’t find Republican help with the tools that are at our disposal,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Wednesday. “We walked away from this problem in the Obama administration; I don’t think we can do that again.”

That tool is budget reconciliation, which allows senators to pass legislation that would change spending and tax laws with only a simple majority, bypassing the 60-vote procedural hurdle that applies to most measures. Republicans used budget reconciliation to passed the tax reform law in 2017 (Public Law 115-97), which contained language that opened up the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.

BGOV Cheat Sheet: Explaining Budget Reconciliation

“At a minimum I think a carbon price would be a pretty clear budget-related item,” to help qualify climate legislation for reconciliation, Whitehouse said.

The Democrat’s remarks came during an online discussion with Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on prospects for climate change legislation in the next Congress. The event was moderated by Stanford University.

‘ACA All Over Again’

Murkowski warned that a partisan climate bill pushed through a Democratic Senate using reconciliation would not survive future Republican control.

“The Republicans will do everything in their power to erode it, repeal it. It will be the ACA all over again,” she said, referring to the Affordable Care Act passed during the Obama administration.

Murkowski said she thinks Congress needs to do more to address the issue of climate change, reduce emissions, and advance technologies in energy efficiency.

“But I don’t want things to be so whipsawed that they just move back and forth between who is in control of the Congress and who is in control of the White House. If we are going to really address the reality of climate change, it has to be enduring policy and I don’t think you get there through use of partisan tools like the removal of the filibuster and reconciliation.”

Republicans and Democrats can’t continue to argue over whether climate change is real, Murkowski said, adding that she believes the two sides are making progress. “We have to move forward.”

Carbon Pricing

Murkowski expressed support for looking at carbon pricing as part of any broad climate legislation.

“I know that a price on carbon is one that makes Republicans more than a little bit nervous, but I do think that that can be, and should be, one of the options on the table for discussion,” she said. “I would like see less of the regulatory and more of those market forces that come with that predictability. If that predictability comes with a price, I am happy to talk about it.”

She added that ensuring those who are most vulnerable to rising energy costs need to be made a priority in those discussions.

Murkowski also said innovative energy technology is necessary in climate change legislation, touting her own bipartisan energy package (S. 2657) that is still pending in the Senate.

“It would be a crying shame if we don’t pass it this year,” the chairman said, predicting it would make a comeback in the 117th Congress.

Whitehouse agreed with Murkowski that technology needs to be part of a climate bill.

“There’s an enormous amount of work that can be done in energy efficiency,” he said, citing carbon capture technology in particular. He said climate change legislation should also have an infrastructure section, including items like modernizing the grid and protecting coastlines, which attracts bipartisanship.

Carbon pricing has traction with a lot of the corporate sector and Republican stakeholders outside of Congress, Whitehouse said.

“I think you can put together a carbon pricing/infrastructure/efficiency bill that could get you a long way to the 1.5 degrees that ought to be our target and do so in a way that increased environmental and economic justice in the country, rather than making things less fair,” he said, adding, “it’s going to take a lot of negotiation.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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