Clean Energy Insights

Forget Manchin — go around him to pass a climate bill

6 minute read

As featured in the Hill

Can the GOP play an important role in passing a climate bill? Perhaps.

Last year, “Political Climate” podcast co-host Brandon Hurlbut asked, “Do you think there’s an opportunity now to pick off some of those Republican senators like Lisa Murkowski, like Rob Portman, like Susan Collins or Mitt Romney who have demonstrated some support for clean energy in the past?”

Fellow co-host Shane Skelton replied, “I do think it’s going to be a lot easier to pick off the Mitt Romney’s of the world … I think there’s five or six republicans that will roll with you on some kind of climate policy … I’m not sure Joe Manchin will roll with you. But maybe Romney would. If it was a climate-related bill you might be able to get a couple Republicans to get you to 50.”

Despite President Biden in the oval office and a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, the climate agenda that Americans voted for — which included 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, net-zero emissions by 2050, investing in electric cars, clean energy manufacturing jobs, environmental justice measures and a green job corps — has faded into the distance.

The only thing Democrats have to show for it is a whole lot of finger-wagging at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — and to a lesser extent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

But finger-wagging and bemoaning Manchin’s countless about-faces on budget reconciliation will not solve the climate crisis. What will is obtaining the needed vote to pass the $555 billion climate package.

What if Manchin was a Republican?

As a thought experiment — please just switch the D behind Manchin’s name to an R and consider him a fossil fuel-backed Republican for a moment. (This shouldn’t be too hard: He literally sat with the Republicans during the State of the Union and receives more money from the fossil fuel lobby than any other senator.)

If we had 49 Democratic Senators and 51 Republican Senators, would we spend all this time and energy, and put all this media attention, on one Republican senator? And watch helplessly as he whittles down climate proposal after climate proposal because he believes he holds all the cards?

No, of course not. We would cast a wider net and target many more Republicans.

GOP senators breaking rank

Recently, we’ve seen a few examples of GOP senators breaking rank and voting with their conscience, rather than following the party’s obstructionist agenda. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that it could happen for a climate bill.

For example, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the next Supreme Court justice. Murkowski also voted for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Romney voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial.

There’s even a group of GOP senators in the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, whose stated goal is to find common ground on climate solutions.

Breaking the bill into smaller pieces

For Republicans to break rank, however, it would likely need to be for a climate-only bill. Since Build Back Better was targeting not just climate — but also prescription drug prices, child tax credits and other Democratic priorities — it was a non-starter for most Republicans.

But since January, the president has suggested that the best way to achieve his broad agenda would be to “break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest of it.”

Democrats should follow the president’s direction, starting with a climate bill.

As Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) explains, “The climate and clean energy provisions in Build Back Better have been largely worked through and financed, so let’s start there and add any of the other important provisions to support working families that can meet the 50-vote threshold.”

Yes, this is certainly a political tightrope. By removing the non-climate priorities from the bill, would the rest of the Democrats still support it?

Well, I certainly hope so, given the gravity of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. UN Secretary-General António Guterres described it as “cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world.”


Even if no Republicans agree to vote for a climate bill, there’s still a benefit in talking to them and getting their names involved in the discussion.

If you show up on a car salesman’s lot and he knows you really want a car, he’ll raise the price. But if he sees you across the street talking to another car dealer, you’ve taken away his position of power and gained leverage.

Don’t get me wrong. We need to keep the pressure on Manchin. Protesters recently blockaded a coal plant Manchin earns $500,000 a year from — exactly the type of civil disobedience I think we need more of.

But let’s not put all our eggs in one basket. What might similar actions to hold Republican senators accountable on climate look like?

Let’s not let one vote stand in the way of helping our country, and ultimately the world, forge a more sustainable future. This is the last chance we know we have, to pass meaningful climate legislation before it’s too late. Don’t we want to make sure we pursued every possibility? Left no stone unturned?

Manchin is not our only hope, and we have to stop treating him like he is.

Andreas Karelas is the author of  “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America.” He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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