GLASGOW, Scotland — A delegation of mostly Democratic lawmakers arrived at the U.N. Climate Change Conference early Saturday morning to receive the welcome news that President Biden’s infrastructure bill had been passed by the House of Representatives and would soon become law.
In interviews with Yahoo News at the conference, eight Democrats — Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Tom Carper of Delaware and Michael Bennett of Colorado — all expressed some measure of relief about the infrastructure bill’s passage. They also were, by and large, confident that the Build Back Better plan, Biden’s companion proposal to spend at least $1.7 trillion over 10 years on a host of domestic policy priorities, especially mitigating climate change, would also pass.
“It’s really, really encouraging,” Heinrich, one of 18 U.S. senators to travel to COP26, said of the infrastructure package. “I worked a lot on that bill on [improving electricity] transmission, which is an enabler for all this clean energy.”
While progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who voted against the infrastructure bill, have criticized it for not containing enough to address climate change, Heinrich called it “a giant step forward to be able to build the grid of the future that we desperately need if we’re going to decarbonize.”
Cardin, who sits on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, said that criticism from some progressives about the bill’s shortcomings on combating climate change ignores what the infrastructure bill does contain both for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change.
“The transportation sector included the strongest climate section ever dealing with electric vehicles and charging stations, dealt with the adaptation issues, dealt with resiliency,” Cardin said. “Also in the water section, we also dealt with resiliency, so it was a strong commitment to the realities of climate change and what we need to deal with it.”
Rosen sought to emphasize the positive aspects of the bill.
“I’m a positive person, so I want to think about what we are doing. What we’re going to invest in, what we haven’t done before," she said. "These are new and exciting things that we are going to do. We’re going to invest in broadband and airports and all kinds of infrastructure.”
While Durbin said he thought the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better plan complemented each other, Merkley stressed that he was less impressed with the climate aspects of the infrastructure package.
“The bill has some pros and cons on the climate front, for example, it develops some hydrogen hubs. It also develops what I refer to as dirty hydrogen hubs that are based on natural gas,” Merkley said. “Really, we’re looking to the Build Back Better bill to be the key bill that is going to take us forward on climate.”
Cardin said the infrastructure bill “paves the way” for the Build Back Better bill, which he described as containing “an unprecedented commitment for the environment.”
Green New Deal co-author Markey also expressed optimism that Democrats would, in the end, rally around Build Back Better.
“I believe that Joe Biden has the capacity to bring the Build Back Better bill home. I think we’re very close, and my opinion is that we will get a historically strong bill,” Markey said. “We don’t have a choice. The Build Back Better bill must pass. The climate sections in the Build Back Better bill must become law, and we’re all gonna work as hard as we can to make sure that happens.”
The biggest single obstacle to passing the bill is Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. To date, Manchin has been something of a one-man wrecking ball to the legislation, knocking out sections of the bill like the clean energy provision that some climate advocates say was needed to ensure the U.S. meets its goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Each of the senators who spoke with Yahoo News has had ample practice answering questions about where Manchin stands on the latest negotiations for Build Back Better and whether he might ultimately be persuaded to support it. The one who was least confident in the bill's prospects was the one in the best position to judge them.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said, when asked if the Senate would muster the votes to pass the hotly contested legislation. “First, we have to get it through the parliamentarian’s office and through 50 Democratic senators.”
Merkley was equally hesitant to predict whether Manchin would ultimately support the bill. “That’s probably the most important question on all of our minds, because there’s so much in this, it’s investment in families, it’s investment in housing, which we tremendously need, and it’s investment in climate, which, we cannot miss this opportunity,” Merkley said.
“There have been a lot of discussions with Sen. Manchin. I think he’s gotten a lot of changes made in the package,” Cardin said, adding, “We’re working in a very constructive manner. We’ve got to get to the finish line.”
Part of the effort to sway Manchin has come from Carper, who recently held a town hall in West Virginia to draw attention to the provisions of the Build Back Better plan.
“Joe Manchin was born in West Virginia, I was born in West Virginia,” Carper said. “I held a hearing there two weeks ago and the hearing focused on what the bipartisan infrastructure bill can do for West Virginia with respect to drinking water, waste water treatments, flood mitigation.”
“And all politics is local,” he added, “and it was an opportunity just to remind Sen. Manchin and Shelley Capito, who is my wingwoman on the Environment and Public Works Committee. So, I think he’s there to represent West Virginia. He’s also there to represent the rest of the country.”
All of the senators spoke of the toll that climate change was already taking on their home states.
“Delaware is the lowest-lying state in the nation,” Carper said, “It’s under siege because of rising sea levels.”
“This is impacting everything that I hold dear about my home, I’m just seeing it change in real time,” Henrich said. “I see forests burn, and they come back and it’s not the same forest.”
“We have a much longer, hotter fire season,” Merkley said, of Oregon. “Last Labor Day, a year ago, we had six towns burn to the ground, absolutely devastated, as if they’d been firebombed.”
Bennet said that Colorado has been severely affected by wildfire smoke. “For us, it’s very much about the present,” he said. “This summer in Colorado, there were many days when you couldn’t see the mountains because of the smoke from California. There were many days when there were health warnings saying you shouldn’t go outside if you’ve got preexisting conditions because of the smoke.”
“No one lives in Colorado to stay indoors all summer,” he added. “It’s affecting our economy and our way of life.”
It was with those dramatic impacts of climate change in mind that the delegation came to COP26, yet for each of the senators, the unfinished business at home remains a top priority.
“I would say that people are very hopeful [at COP26]. There’s a ton of goodwill here for the Biden administration and I think for the United States generally,” Bennet said. “People are very hopeful that we’re actually going to get something done, and they feel like the combination of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill together will represent a very meaningful investment in climate. I’ve been saying that I think we’ll pass it because I do think we’ll pass it.”
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