A number of Democrats are growing increasingly nervous that the White House could agree to a bipartisan infrastructure deal that scales back key climate-change initiatives, prompting a lobbying push that has included former vice president Al Gore making his case directly to President Biden.
The private warning last month from the climate hawk and Democratic grandee comes as Biden faces growing unease among liberals — including many administration officials — about his pursuit of Republican support for his next major spending package.
Gore called Biden to insist on the inclusion of climate policies after the encouragement of John Podesta, former chair of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, said people briefed on the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss it. Gore also spoke with Biden aide Steve Ricchetti this week about climate and infrastructure, according to a separate person, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal the private conversation. A White House official said the call between Gore and Richetti ended on a positive note.
The former vice president urged Biden to stop the planned Byhalia Pipeline, which would transport crude oil for export through predominantly Black neighborhoods in southwest Memphis and could affect a nearby drinking-water well owned by a local utility.
Biden’s infrastructure plan proposed roughly $1 trillion in clean energy tax credits, support for electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure, research into breakthrough green technologies, and a new jobs program to restore public lands and plug abandoned oil and gas wells, among other climate-related measures. Republicans have rejected many of these proposals, and Biden has fought for the climate measures but expressed an openness to scaling back his initial proposal to secure bipartisan support.
The private jockeying over the administration’s climate agenda comes at a critical moment, as Biden is pressing world leaders gathering in Europe to more swiftly curb the globe’s carbon output. The United States is unlikely to meet its new pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, according to independent analyses, without the funding and incentives Biden has outlined in his infrastructure bill.
The White House’s predicament has led to some angst from within the Biden administration, particularly on the strategy with the infrastructure bill. Some Biden economic aides from more-liberal circles — including high-ranking members of the Council of Economic Advisers and the departments of Treasury and Labor — are largely cut out of the most important decisions on infrastructure negotiations with Congress, three other people briefed by senior administration officials said. These people also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. A White House official said those parts of the administration are a critical part of the infrastructure policy process.
No issue has emerged as a greater cause for alarm on the left than the specter of failure to enact changes to climate policy. The Obama administration set ambitious climate targets but failed to pass legislation with its congressional majorities to address a rapidly warming planet. Climate experts warn that the world has no time to decarbonize the economy without courting humanitarian catastrophe, and it could be decades before Democrats again command congressional majorities with which to push through major legislation.
But with many Republicans lining up in opposition to the White House’s climate agenda, some Democrats fear the president could be backing down in search of getting a deal on infrastructure and a range of other priorities.
“Everyone I talk to in the White House is worried that there is a very powerful contingent in the president’s ear that does actually want the compromise,” said one liberal economist in close communication with several senior White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss private conversations.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates denied the administration has wavered in its commitment to act on climate change. The White House has repeatedly pointed to a lack of climate-related funding in rejecting the infrastructure proposals floated by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). And the president frequently highlights the need to make major clean energy investments in his speeches and public comments.
A bipartisan bloc of centrist senators announced they had reached a deal on infrastructure on Thursday, but its contents have not become public.
“The President has underscored that climate change is one of the defining crises we face as a nation, and in the negotiations he and his team have continuously fought for leading on the clean energy economy and on clean energy jobs,” Bates said in a statement.
Fae Jencks, a spokeswoman for Gore, said in an email that the former vice president “isn’t going to comment on private conversations with the President.” Podesta could not be reached for comment.
Biden’s infrastructure negotiations put into direct conflict two of his top priorities — bringing bipartisan legislating back to Washington, and fulfilling his campaign pledge to address the rapidly warming climate.
Congressional Republicans have complained throughout negotiations that the White House is too adamant on its climate-related policies, and Republicans have attacked Biden’s push to transition America away from its dependence on fossil fuels. Congressional aides say it is virtually impossible to conceive of a bipartisan compromise that lives up to the White House climate policies.
After shutting down negotiations with Capito earlier this week, Biden is starting to engage with a bipartisan group of 10 senators on a different infrastructure package. Asked whether their emerging infrastructure agreement includes proposals to fight climate change, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said Thursday, “Oh sure.”
”There are some people that are going to say the climate provisions are more than enough, there are other people that are going to say it’s not adequate,” Tester added. “It’s going to be up to each individual member once this thing is truly done.”
But a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, even a scaled-back version, could help Biden secure one of his top campaign promises.
The administration has suggested that if Congress first approves a narrow bipartisan infrastructure deal it could then try to pass a different measure with support from only Democrats. That additional piece of legislation could serve as the vehicle for addressing climate change and other liberal priorities — such as child care, education and taxing the rich — that Republicans oppose. The administration is also wary of antagonizing Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have called for a bipartisan product on infrastructure, by rejecting GOP overtures.
That strategy has faced growing doubts among Biden allies, both inside and outside the administration.
About a half-dozen Democratic senators have warned this week against cutting a bipartisan deal on infrastructure that leaves out climate reform. Sen. Martin Heinrich (N.M.) said in an interview that he is skeptical of assurances that a narrow bipartisan infrastructure deal would be followed by a broader bill that includes climate initiatives. It is not clear whether Democratic centrists would be willing to approve a second major spending package with only Democratic votes after passing an approximately $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told The Washington Post he would reject a deal that did not address the climate crisis or raise taxes on multinational corporations.
“I think that’s a very dangerous approach to this unless we have a very well-defined and secure commitment from the necessary senators to be able to be assured,” Heinrich said of first passing a narrow infrastructure bill without climate policies. “I’m not a redline guy, but I’m not in a mood to ignore the greatest existential threat to my children’s generation.”
Several experts said the kinds of massive investments and generous tax incentives Biden proposed as part of his original jobs bill are essential to accelerating the nation’s shift away from fossil fuels. A recent analysis by Princeton University researchers found that policymakers would have to mobilize an additional $2.5 trillion in new capital investment in this decade to reach the president’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.
Princeton engineering professor Jesse Jenkins said in an interview that although the private sector could finance much of it, the federal government would likely have to provide $1 trillion in incentives and spending, along with some new regulation, to achieve this energy shift.
Environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power, have launched a major effort to bolster support for climate provisions in Biden’s infrastructure and jobs plan. Late last month, LCV announced it would spend more than $10 million on a grass-roots and digital ad campaign. Climate Power has spent $8 million since Inauguration Day touting the jobs potential of clean energy investments.
“This is our absolute highest priority. We have to go big, we have to go fast. We are 100 percent out of time to act on the climate crisis,” Tiernan Sittenfield, LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in a phone interview. “This is our shot at once-in-a-generation progress, and we cannot blow it.”
The White House declined to comment on internal deliberations. Biden has also identified a “jobs cabinet” responsible for infrastructure negotiations that includes Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
The infrastructure negotiations come amid scrutiny over the direction of the administration more generally. Biden surprised many economists last week when he said that it “makes sense” for unemployment benefits to end in September, a position the administration had not yet taken. Officials at the Labor Department overseeing the program were also not briefed on the president’s remarks ahead of time, two people familiar with the matter said.
Since his election, Biden has impressed liberals with his large stimulus plan this March and by unveiling $4 trillion in spending and tax plans this spring. Yet the president campaigned as a bipartisan dealmaker, and his long Senate career was defined by a centrist voting record.
“Right after the recovery plan passed, there was this sense of, ‘Oh my god, maybe Biden is the transformative president all along,’ ” said the leader of one liberal activist group in close communication with the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. “We’re all hoping the Biden who passed that bill is the same one we have now.”
Tony Romm contributed to this report.