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Senator Whitehouse sees two paths forward on climate change

Rhode Island Democrat is looking for action in bipartisan infrastructure package and budget reconciliation process

US Sheldon Whitehouse speaks during a June 23 news conference with Senator Jack Reed, calling on Congress to put clean water upgrades in a new infrastructure bill.
US Sheldon Whitehouse speaks during a June 23 news conference with Senator Jack Reed, calling on Congress to put clean water upgrades in a new infrastructure bill.Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — As the US Senate’s most outspoken advocate on climate change, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been expressing mounting frustration about slow movement on a bipartisan infrastructure package and climate measures.

“OK, I’m now officially very anxious about climate legislation,” he tweeted on June 7.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait,” he tweeted on June 9. “That’s true for bipartisan infrastructure & climate negotiations.”

But during an interview Wednesday, the Rhode Island Democrat told the Globe that he now sees a way to include some climate change initiatives in the still-incomplete infrastructure proposal while taking even more significant steps through the federal budget reconciliation process.

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“I am going to be anxious until we land this plane,” Whitehouse said. “But I’m slightly less anxious because I think there’s a pathway to an open runway that we can see – that is reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is a special parliamentary procedure that makes legislation easier to pass in the Senate. Instead of needing 60 votes, a reconciliation bill only needs a simple majority in the Senate. And that is key in today’s Senate, which is evenly split between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats and independents who caucus with Democrats.

Whitehouse said there has been “legitimate confusion” about whether the bipartisan infrastructure deal would represent the only path forward for federal action on climate change and clean energy. But he said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has made it clear that he is going to pursue progress on climate change through both paths – the infrastructure package and budget reconciliation.

“I think I am in full agreement with the plan and the strategy proposed,” Whitehouse said.

He noted the Senate remains evenly split, saying, “There’s still plenty of ways to screw this up.” But, he said, “At least there’s still clear potential.”

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Whitehouse said he expects some climate change initiatives to be included in the still-forming bipartisan infrastructure plan. And he expects bipartisan agreement in other areas, such as the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which aims to break down barriers for farmers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets so they can be rewarded for climate-smart practices.

But Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, also called for using budget reconciliation to advance measures with or without Republican support, such as “a meaningful price on carbon,” electric vehicle charging programs, and a national clean electricity standard.

Whitehouse emphasized that the goal of these proposals is to keep the annual average global temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – which has been identified by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a tipping point beyond which the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, and floods will spike. He called the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark “nature’s acid test.”

Whitehouse also emphasized that time is short.

“The irreplaceable resource that we have is time,” he said. “You can’t get time back if you have lost it, and we have a lot to do in a short period of time.”

On June 12, he tweeted a photo that showed Republican Senator Mitt Romney in an elevator with other senators. “Mitch slyly smiling as bipartisanship detour gobbles up precious time,” Whitehouse wrote. “‘Bipartisanship theater’ while Americans need results.”

Whitehouse said Republican leaders have made clear that they intend to frustrate President Biden’s agenda. He noted that the No. 3 Senate Republican, John Barrasso of Wyoming, recently told a group of voters that he wants to make President Biden a “one-half-term president.”

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“So when we watch time fritter away, it’s hard not to connect the dots and say this is a part of a Republican strategy to disrupt the Biden presidency,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.