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Getting to 50 votes means meeting Manchin and Sinema’s demands

Unlike the larger bill, the climate plan can pass.

An exhibitor demonstrates plugging in a charging port for a Ford Motor Co. Mustang during the Washington Auto Show on Jan. 21.Al Drago/Bloomberg

It’s time for congressional Democrats to face what really shouldn’t be a tough decision: whether to hold out for a Build Back Better agenda that has thus far proved impossible to enact or to whittle their hopes into a package amenable to the two Democratic centrists who hold the key to success in a 50-50 Senate.

Those two, of course, are the pair progressives love to hate, senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Bugbears they may be, but practicality dictates acknowledging intraparty political reality: The Democratic governing coalition’s achievable agenda is only as strong as the commitment of its most moderate members, and Manchin and Sinema simply aren’t inclined to fall in line with the views of their more progressive peers. As a result, it should now be painfully obvious to everyone that, to quote the late, lamented political analyst Meat Loaf, the Build Back Better climate-and-social-agenda legislation is “going nowhere fast” in the Senate. Even to pass by a majority vote through the filibuster-sidestepping budget reconciliation process, it needs the backing of all 50 Democratic senators so that Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote. Problem: Build Back Better doesn’t have the support of Manchin and Sinema. Indeed, as passing months have rendered dubious the administration’s prediction that inflation would be transitory, Manchin has moved farther away, insisting that Democrats should begin again from scratch on their domestic agenda.


All of which is why US Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, thinks it’s time for Democrats to adopt a new approach: Start with the climate provisions and then build atop that.

Markey, who has experienced climate heartbreak before — specifically, when landmark cap-and-trade lost momentum and died back in 2010 — doesn’t want to miss another opportunity. The way to avoid that, he says, is to take the 10-year, $555 billion climate package, add whatever else is doable, and pass that by the time of President Biden’s State of the Union address.


“I’ve been talking to my Democratic colleagues as well as the White House, and my feeling is that we need to pass a Build Back Better package that can get 50 votes,” Markey said in an interview. “I am not talking about a climate-only bill. I am talking about a climate-first bill.”

The idea is gaining momentum. On Monday, more than 20 so-called front-liners — moderate representatives in purple seats Democrats must hold if they are to have any hope of retaining the House — wrote the White House urging President Biden to focus on enacting the climate provisions now, saying that package was something the country needed and their constituents wanted.

Climate, Markey says, is an area where Democrats can agree more easily than anywhere else. Why? In no small part, because Manchin has repeatedly said so and has largely signed off on the climate provisions.

Now, Manchin’s tentative okay came only after fellow Democrats agreed to drop from the package tax incentives to induce utilities to move from fossil fuels to carbon-free sources. What remains in the $555 billion plan, however, would still be vitally important to meeting Biden’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030. The package would hasten the transition to electric vehicles, incentivize a switch from fossil fuel furnaces to heat pumps and promote home solar-panel installation, strengthen the power grid, further the nation’s wind- and solar-power manufacturing capacity, and increase energy efficiency.


Manchin, a senator from a state long synonymous with coal mining, but where coal employment has now dwindled markedly, can justify his support for those climate provisions by noting that he forced his party to jettison the most coal-threatening aspect of the bill.

In addition to its substantive importance, the climate package would give the president another big victory, and on an issue of particular importance to younger voters.

That’s not to say that climate progress is all Democrats should aspire to. The social-supports package contains a number of desirable programs, from day care to prescription drugs to health care. There, they should go as far as Manchin and Sinema will agree to.

But as Biden himself has now acknowledged, their Build Back Better hopes will have to be pared back if Democrats are to pass significant domestic legislation this year. Attractive pieces that get left on the caucus-room floor can then become part of the party’s midterm platform.

To kickstart the process, Markey says, Democrats should strive to pass a climate-plus package by March 1, the date scheduled for Biden’s State of the Union speech..

“By using our area of biggest agreement as the starting point, we can resolve the other issues and get a package to the Senate floor for a vote that will protect the planet and the people,” Markey said.


As a leader on climate and a long-time domestic-agenda liberal, Markey has credibility with both camps. It’s time for Democrats to take his pragmatic path forward. That means adopting a climate-provisions-plus approach — and agreeing to say a reluctant yes at the point where Manchin and Sinema decide that’s as far as they can go.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.