Joe Biden has promised executive action on climate change after Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator who has repeatedly thwarted his own party while making millions in the coal industry, refused to support more funding for climate action.
In another blow to Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, the West Virginia senator also came out against tax raises for wealthy Americans.
Manchin’s opposition became clear on Thursday night. On Friday, with Biden in Saudi Arabia, the White House issued a statement.
Biden said: “Action on climate change and clean energy remains more urgent than ever.
“So let me be clear: if the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment.
“My actions will create jobs, improve our energy security, bolster domestic manufacturing and supply chains, protect us from oil and gas price hikes in the future, and address climate change. I will not back down: the opportunity to create jobs and build a clean energy future is too important to relent.”
Biden and Democrats hope to include environmental measures in a $1tn version of the $2tn Build Back Better spending bill Manchin killed last year in dramatic fashion.
Then, the Biden White House angrily accused Manchin of breaching “commitments to the president and [his] colleagues in the House and Senate”. Bridges were rebuilt but on Thursday night Manchin appeared to reach for the dynamite once again.
According to a Democrat briefed on negotiations, Manchin told Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, he would oppose legislation if it included climate or green energy provisions or higher taxes on the rich and corporations.
The Democrat also said Manchin told Schumer he would support a new spending package only if it was limited to curbing pharmaceutical prices and extending federal subsidies for buying healthcare insurance.
Manchin disputed that version of events in a call to a West Virginia radio show. He said he told Schumer he would not commit to environmental or tax measures until he saw the inflation rate for July, which is due out on 10 August, and the size of the expected interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve at the end of July.
“Let’s wait until that comes out, so we know that we’re going down a path that won’t be inflammatory, to add more to inflation,” Manchin said. “I can’t make that decision … on taxes … and also on the energy and climate because it takes the taxes to pay for the investment into clean technology that I’m in favor of. But I’m not going to do something and overreach that causes more problem.”
Manchin said he asked Schumer for time.
“I said, ‘Chuck, can we just wait. How much more and how much damaging is that going to be?’ He took that as a no, I guess, and came out with this big thing last night, and I don’t know why they did that.”
In Riyadh, Biden told reporters: “I’m not going away. I’m using every power I have as president to continue to fulfill my pledge to move toward dealing with global warming.”
Asked if Manchin had been “negotiating in good faith”, Biden said: “I didn’t negotiate with Joe Manchin.”
In his earlier statement, Biden also promised progress on healthcare.
He said: “After decades of fierce opposition from powerful special interests, Democrats have come together, beaten back the pharmaceutical industry and are prepared to give Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices and to prevent an increase in health insurance premiums for millions of families with coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
“Families all over the nation will sleep easier if Congress takes this action. The Senate should move forward, pass it before the August recess, and get it to my desk so I can sign it.”
To pass legislation, Democrats are dependent on Manchin’s vote in a Senate divided 50-50 and controlled by the vice-president, Kamala Harris.
In March last year, Manchin backed Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief package after tense negotiations during which, according to the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Biden told him: “Joe, please don’t kill my bill.”
But the senator has since stood in the way of much of Biden’s agenda, from the Build Back Better package to measures which would require reform to the filibuster, the Senate rule which requires a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation.
Democrats and progressives have argued for scrapping or reforming the filibuster in order to legislate on key issues under attack from the right, including voting rights and abortion.
But Manchin and others opposed to such moves, prominently including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are in part aligned with Biden, a former senator opposed to abolishing the filibuster entirely.
Manchin will not face re-election as the only Democrat in statewide office in West Virginia, a state with a powerful coal industry lobby, until 2024. His business, Enersystems, has earned millions of dollars as the only supplier of low-grade coal to a high-polluting power plant near Fairmont, West Virginia.
According to campaign finance filings, in 2021-22 Manchin is the senator who has received most money from donors in coal mining, natural gas transmission and distribution and oil and gas. He is second for donations from alternate energy production and services.
Climate advocates reacted angrily to Manchin’s move.
“It’s outrageous that Manchin and the Republican party have killed climate legislation this Congress,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity advocacy group.
Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “Senators have told me and others that negotiating with Joe Manchin is like negotiating with an Etch-a-Sketch. It appears to be a coal-powered Etch-a-Sketch.”
John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress, said: “It seems odd that Senator Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity. But we can’t throw in the towel on the planet.”