President Biden is considering breaking up the Build Back Better act — a $1.75 trillion spending proposal full of social and climate-focused initiatives — into smaller packages, which he says will give the policies a better chance of passing.
“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later,” said said during a rare two-hour news conference on Wednesday evening, the eve of his one-year anniversary in office.
The most recent iteration of Build Back Better would have included $555 billion for carbon-cutting programs, marking the largest climate investment in US history. But in December, negotiations on the package ground to a halt when Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema withdrew their support.
At Wednesday’s presser, Biden indicated that there is still strong support on Capitol Hill for the bill’s climate proposals.
“I’ve been talking to my colleagues on the Hill, it’s clear that we would be able to get support for the $500-plus billion for energy and the environment,” he said.
Some Democrats and climate advocates, including Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, praised Biden’s statement on next steps for the bill, stressing that the US urgently needs to pass the climate provisions it includes.
But in splitting the bill, Biden runs the risk of letting it get watered down.
“I think something will eventually pass,” Democratic Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky told one DC outlet. “I don’t think it will be close to what we passed in the House.”
Build Back Better has already been pared back considerably. Democrats’ starting bid for the bill was $3.5 trillion, but under pressure from conservative party members, chiefly Manchin and Sinema, that number fell to $1.75 trillion. Some of the strongest climate-focused aspects of the bill — including a provision designed to incentivize utilities to scale up renewable power sources — have also been removed due to Manchin’s opposition.
Some climate advocates say that Biden and Congressional Democrats should work to preserve whatever climate policies from the act that they can.
“The best Build Back Better package is one that can pass,” Lisa Frank, Environment America’s Washington legislative office executive director, said in a statement.
But others fear that breaking up the bill will mean that important social provisions will fall by the wayside.
“President Biden’s agenda is alive because of the activists who fought for it over the past year.” Erich Pica, president of the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “These same activists are ready to pass all of Build Back Better—not just a piece of it.”
President Biden has promised to cut the nation’s emissions in half, compared with 2005 levels, by 2030. Analyses of the stalled spending package show that while its proposals cannot achieve that goal on its own, it could put that target within striking distance.
Another impetus for passing federal climate policy: Politics. With approval for Biden’s performance at an all-time low and with the 2022 midterm elections just months away, many Democrats are anxious to enact sweeping, bold measures. A December poll found that nearly three-quarters of all Democrats said the support the bill, though only 36% of independents and 13% of Republicans felt the same way.
A poll from earlier in the year also showed that the majority of registered voters of both parties support many climate action items, including developing clean energy resources and investing in renewable energy research. While 93 percent of liberal Democrats said they thought clean energy should be a high or very high priority, however, just 43 percent of Republicans did.
From a planetary perspective, there has never been a more urgent time for the US to pass federal climate policy. Last year, US carbon emissions increased, despite clear warnings from scientists that the world must begin ramping down fossil fuel production and curbing greenhouse gas pollution at once to avert catastrophe.
“Congress has the opportunity to pass life-saving, intersectional, justice-focused climate action that would take steps to drastically reduce dangerous emissions, promote environmental justice, and create millions of good-paying union jobs across our country. We need to move from words to action, from negotiation to agreement,” said Markey in a statement. “Our economy, our health, and the very future of our planet simply cannot wait.”