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30 June 2021

Joe Biden’s infrastructure deal fails to match the climate threat

The US president can prioritise bipartisan cooperation or the climate crisis but not both. 

By Emily Tamkin

“We have a deal,” US President Joe Biden announced on 24 June.

Finally, after months of cajoling and negotiating, Biden secured bipartisan support for his infrastructure deal. Senators agreed on $579bn in new spending, the president told reporters outside the White House. The majority  $312bn would go to infrastructure, $65bn to broadband, and $55bn to water. (Only $15bn would go to electric vehicle infrastructure and transit.)

Across the country that same day, however, a wildfire continued to roll through Big Sur, California. With the global climate crisis continuing apace, fires and drought are expected to besiege the state all summer as they did last year  but worse.

The juxtaposition between the deal and the fires  and the inadequacy of the former in addressing the latter  reveals a depressing insight into where US politics is at with tackling the existential issue of our day. Yet it wasn’t presented as depressing. Biden said that what he refers to as “human infrastructure”, such as like money for childcare and tax credits for families, wouldn’t be in this bill; it would instead be pursued through reconciliation, a process that allows certain budgetary legislation to pass without overcoming the filibuster, which requires 60 Senate votes. 

“None of us got all that we wanted,” Biden said. “But this reminds me of the days we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress.” 

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The first issue with the administration’s optimistic outlook, however, is that Republicans have already started backtracking. Democratic senators had previously spoken about a kind of two-track strategy, moving a traditional infrastructure bill and “the human infrastructure bill” through Congress separately, the former with Republican support and the latter through the reconciliation process. But after the announcement of the deal, Republicans seized on the idea that Biden was linking the two and pretended it was so shocking they would have to consider walking away. 

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On 28 June the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell demanded the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and House speaker Nancy Pelosi echo Biden’s denial of a connection between the two bills: “The president cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process,” McConnell said.

In truth, it is McConnell who has said that his goal is “one hundred percent” to obstruct the Biden administration. He has even hinted that, if Republicans retake control of the Senate in 2022, he will not seat a Biden appointment to the Supreme Court in 2024 (despite the Senate rushing through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett after voting in the 2020 election had already begun). 

Policies that should be considered desirable by both parties  such as the establishment of a commission to look into what exactly happened when the Capitol Building was stormed by Trump supporters on 6 January  have already been blocked by McConnell’s Republicans in the Senate. And now, after Biden whittled away his infrastructure proposal so that moderate Democrats could claim bipartisan support, Republicans have threatened to blow the deal up over Biden’s suggestion that the two bills are linked.

If, in the next few days or weeks, the deal does indeed fail, it will not be because Biden didn’t walk back his comments enough, or because Pelosi or Schumer refused to back down. It will be because Senate Republicans were never really interested in compromise, but  by their own admission  in obstruction. And in power.

There is another issue with this round of deal-making and compromise, too. On 28 June the Sunrise Movement, a youth-driven grassroots movement dedicated to combating the climate crisis, protested outside the White House. “No climate, no deal,” they demanded, referring to the bold provisions that were originally intended to be in the infrastructure bill but have, after bipartisan negotiation, been left out. These include a requirement that power companies increase the amount of energy that they make from sources such as wind and solar.

There is a chance that climate change will be introduced in the legislation that Democrats will pass through reconciliation, provided Biden can get all 50 in the Senate on board. But there is something mind-boggling about the difference of scale of that sentence, with its hemming and hawing and procedure and promise of back-slapping and cajoling and deal-making, and what is happening, right now, on the west coast of the United States. 

As the Sunrise Movement protested outside the White House, Seattle, Washington, was 41°C. It is fire and drought season in California. There are more than 100 people missing after a building collapsed in Miami, Florida, perhaps in part because of the rise in sea level and the corrosive impact of saltwater. 

This dystopia is not coming. It is already here. And the response from Republicans is to demand that bold action to deal with it be taken out of a landmark infrastructure deal and to threaten that that, too, will fail if there is the promise of another separate bill that addresses our climate crisis.

What this suggests is that the Biden administration and Democrats can prioritise bipartisanship, or it can prioritise the people losing their homes to fire. But what became clear this week, if it were not already, is that Biden can’t do both.

[See also: America’s race to net zero]