I hate to say “I told you so,” but I told you so.
Not long after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, agreed to vote for the Democrats’ climate bill – officially styled the Inflation Reduction Act – in return for a so-called “side deal” that would clear the way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, I asked whether his deal would really go through.
I completely understand why Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, agreed to the deal: He was desperate to get the climate bill passed and the only way it was going to pass a 50-50 Senate was if Manchin was on board. Ergo, whatever Manchin wanted, Manchin was going to get. This is what he wanted and this is what he got – or so it seemed.
None of us is privy to back room deals – we were not, as the musical “Hamilton” sings, “in the room where it happened.” However, it appears the deal was that Schumer would make sure Manchin’s provisions were attached to a continuing resolution, one of those stopgap spending bills Congress finds itself passing from time to time because Washington can’t manage to operate in the logical kind of way that Richmond does. The beauty of this (from Manchin’s point of view) is that it’s hard to vote against such resolutions; otherwise, you’re effectively voting to shut down the government and we know from experience how much people love that. It’s essentially a way to sneak something through that otherwise wouldn’t be able to pass on its own.
The political problem that I laid out initially was that just because Schumer agreed to a deal didn’t mean everyone had agreed to the deal. There are lots of Democrats – in both the Senate and the House, which also would have to go along – who aren’t keen on natural gas pipelines. I wondered how much fuss they would raise over this. We now know the answer: quite a bit.
What I didn’t foresee was that a lot of Republicans would object to this provision as well. Their motives might not have been pure. Ideologically, Republicans are more aligned with fossil fuels. But a lot of Republicans simply want to stick it to Manchin for voting for the climate bill. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico: “Given what Sen. Manchin did on the reconciliation bill, [it’s] engendered a lot of bad blood. There’s not a lot of sympathy on our side to provide Sen. Manchin a reward.”
So they didn’t.
Manchin’s provision never came to a vote – because there was a clear majority willing to vote to take it out of the spending measure. Instead, Manchin and Schumer pulled the bill, and the continuing resolution went forward without it.
Yes, politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows: Here you had Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell on the same side, just for different reasons.
Is this the end? No.
Manchin seems certain to bring this back later in the year. “He has at least two more leverage points to get his permitting plan passed this year, and they don’t carry the same urgency as this week’s pre-election deadline,” Politico reported. “The first is Congress’ annual defense policy bill, which could come after the election, and the second is December’s lame-duck government spending bill.”
Here’s the big question, though: What will Manchin come back with?
I’ve been referring to Manchin’s “provision” in the interest of brevity but what Manchin was pushing was a 91-page bill to change the permitting process for energy projects. There were 24 sections to his bill, only one of which dealt with the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who objected volubly to Congress interfering with the permitting process for the pipeline, said there was broad agreement on the other 23 sections – that it was the 24th section that caused problems, at least for him.
That brings us to the big question: Which does Manchin care more about? Does he care more about permitting reform or does he care more about the Mountain Valley Pipeline?
If it’s the former, it sounds as if there’s an opportunity to get something passed. If it’s the latter, well, we don’t know.
For those who see the pipeline as a grievous assault on the environment that will pump out as many emissions as 37 coal plants (as Sanders tweeted), I say: Don’t celebrate too soon.
For those who see the pipeline as necessary infrastructure, particularly if we want to wean Europe off Russian natural gas, I say: Don’t give up hope but don’t count on anything, either.
It’s possible that Manchin comes back with a permitting reform bill that doesn’t mention the pipeline. It’s also possible he comes back with roughly (or even exactly) the same bill that does mandate the pipeline.
(A few words about “permitting reform,” which I put in quotes for a reason. “Reform” is a word people like. If we’re reforming something, we’re improving it, right? Maybe, maybe not. While there may be broad agreement that the way projects get approved should be changed, that doesn’t mean everyone agrees on what those changes should be. Some on the left are very wary of making it too easy to approve new projects. On the other hand, this is also an issue with a lot of political cross-pressures, because some in the environmental community say that to decarbonize the economy, we need to electrify it more, and that means we need more and bigger transmission lines, and we need to make it easier to build those. The author of the Weekly Planet environmental newsletter thought the pipeline was a fair enough price to pay for the rest of Manchin’s bill. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal criticized Manchin’s bill for being too friendly to renewable interests. “More transmission lines will encourage more renewable development, but this will merely make it harder for fossil fuel and nuclear plants to stay in business,” the Journal editorialized. All that’s a way of saying “it’s complicated.” So even if the provision about the Mountain Valley Pipeline goes away, there still could be a big fight over permitting reform in general. I’m not in a position to get into that; my focus is just those 303 miles of pipeline from northwest West Virginia to Chatham.)
Speaking of that pipeline: Just because Kaine was so upset about the Mountain Valley Pipeline provision – he called it “horrible overreach” in a conference call with journalists on Thursday – doesn’t mean others are. Republicans were against Manchin’s bill out of political spite, not because of some philosophical objection to the pipeline. Perhaps if the political environment is calmer, they might well support a bill that includes a mandate for that particular pipeline.
Or maybe they won’t. Republicans might still be mad at Manchin. He’s also up for reelection in 2024, and Republicans see West Virginia as a natural seat for them to win, particularly in a presidential year when it’s a certainty that the Republican nominee, whoever that is, will run up the score in the Mountain State. Republicans may have no interest in handing Manchin a victory, not now, not ever. Republicans have their own permit reform bill – sponsored by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia. It also mandates the pipeline. Depending on how the November midterms go, Republicans might well simply play for time. If Republicans win the House and Senate in November (or even just one of those), why should they give Manchin a win? They could easily wait until the new Congress convenes and then pass their own permitting reform bill, with their own mandate for the pipeline. It would still have to get past President Joe Biden but, depending on what else was in the bill, he might feel compelled to sign it for his own political reasons. Biden has not been a crusader against natural gas the way some on the left have been; earlier this year he pledged to increase exports of natural gas to Europe. A provision about the Mountain Valley Pipeline might be too small for him to even notice in a larger bill, or it might be something he thinks will help stiffen European spines against Russia.
Here’s one of the few things we know for certain: Manchin feels strongly about the pipeline – if for no other reason than the gas would get extracted from his state, so it’s a jobs issue in West Virginia in a way that it’s not in Virginia. We also have reason to believe that Schumer might feel strongly about it, too. The New Republic reported this week that employees of NextEra, one of the pipeline’s backers, have given more money to Schumer than to Manchin – $283,200 for Schumer, $59,350 for Manchin. “NextEra has been Schumer’s second-largest donor this year overall, despite never having breached his top-five list of donors previously,” The New Republic reported. See: “A Company Behind The Mountain Valley Pipeline Is Showering Schumer With More Donations Than Manchin.”
Now, my long years of following politics has led me to believe that money has less to do with votes than most people think. Certainly all those donors hope Schumer will now be more receptive to their point of view. And maybe he will be. But there’s no guarantee. I think the stronger thing at play here is that Schumer made a promise to Manchin – and you don’t get to be, or stay, a party leader if you don’t keep your word. I suspect that counts more than all the donations. (I realize others are more cynical than I am; I’m just reflecting my experience of covering politics.) That makes me think that if Manchin wants the pipeline provision brought back, Schumer will help him.
Whether it passes later this year, I have no clue, but it seems certain to me that it will come back sometime. If Republicans win the Senate, the pipeline provision seems certain to come back – with Capito, not Manchin, in the lead. Even if Democrats pick up seats in the Senate (a dicey proposition in midterms), the provision might still come back, although the odds seem far less certain then.
For now, pipeline opponents have reason to celebrate. However, it’s possible that both Manchin and environmentalists will wind up being disappointed here – Manchin because he’s unable to get his permitting reform bill through because of partisan payback, environmentalists because a version they like even less could pass in the future.