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There’s new momentum in Congress for a climate bill, but a lot of questions on what it could include

By Ella Nilsen and Lauren Fox, CNN

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has cracked open the door for negotiations on a slimmed-down version of President Joe Biden’s climate and economic bill following months of little progress on the issue.

Manchin outlined his counteroffer this week, confirming that climate and clean energy provisions will be some of the few original pieces of Biden’s original Build Back Better bill he wants to pass through a Democrat-only bill. Manchin is also calling for Democrats to raise taxes on corporations and America’s wealthy and use that revenue to reduce the budget deficit and spend on new climate programs.

“Half of that money should be dedicated to fighting inflation and reducing the deficit,” Manchin said of new revenue from an adjusted tax code. “The other half you can pay for a 10-year program, whatever you think is a nice priority, and right now it seems to be the environment.”

That’s being greeted with cautious optimism from Senate climate hawks and outside groups who want to see climate action in Congress as soon as possible. Biden attempted to revive pieces of his domestic agenda during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but Democrats are running out of time to pass something through budget reconciliation — especially before midterms campaigning kicks into high gear this summer and fall.

“I think that is very good news, and my view of it is we need to find a way to get specific about what that means and do it,” Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota told CNN. “I hope it’s sooner rather than later. I don’t think this is going to get easier the longer we wait.”

Negotiations are expected to start in earnest after the Senate finishes its appropriations package. But a lot of unknowns remain. There’s no guarantee Manchin’s vision for clean energy provisions will look like the $555 billion included in Build Back Better, and the industry-friendly head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has indicated he also wants to encourage more fossil fuel use.

But it also could be Democrats’ only hope to pass something before the November midterms.

“We should give Joe Manchin the pen so we actually know where he stands, and then we should negotiate and come to an agreement,” Jamal Raad, executive director of climate group Evergreen Action, told CNN. “If we are looking to lower costs and stop enabling fossil fuel fascists like Putin, we actually have a policy prescription on the table. That’s the climate investments in Build Back Better.”

Democrats are looking for more specifics

Manchin detailing what he’d support in a slimmed-down package was important to Senate climate hawks for two reasons: One, he backed the idea of using a Democrat-only budget reconciliation bill; and two, he specifically included climate in his list of items.

Manchin has been saying positive things about the clean energy tax credit package in Build Back Better for months, but Wednesday’s remarks were the most specific he’d been about what could be in a bill he’d support passing the Senate. The inclusion of climate wasn’t a huge surprise for other senators and staff, given his past public support for a $320 billion clean energy tax credit package.

“Climate, we’ve felt for months, was something we could actually get him there on. We have a lot of reasons to believe that’s true,” a Senate Democratic aide told CNN, adding that Democrats need to get more information on the specifics of what Manchin would support.

“We should ask him and find out, because he basically gave an invitation to engage,” the aide said.

Still, Manchin has made it clear that he doesn’t want new clean energy legislation to rule out the use of fossil fuels, a message that’s only been more forceful since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spiraled the cost of energy.

This could complicate Biden’s climate goals; multiple independent analysts have found not passing the clean energy and climate provisions in Build Back Better would significantly hamper the President’s goal to cut US emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Without it, Biden would be leaving 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions on the table, a recent Princeton University analysis found.

A White House official told CNN that while Biden is intent on getting legislation through Congress, the administration will continue to roll out regulations to cut emissions as well.

“The Cabinet does not see discharging their duties in a manner consistent with the climate crisis as an either/or relative to what happens on Capitol Hill,” the official said. “We’ve been pursuing a robust executive action agenda, and we’re at the same time pursuing critical legislative progress.”

Manchin is focused on banning imported Russian oil

Responding to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, Manchin is spearheading a bipartisan bill to ban Russian oil imports to the US — an effort that got backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday. Manchin has also been calling for an “all-of-the-above” domestic energy strategy to get off of Russian energy, which includes fossil fuels.

At a Thursday Natural Resources Committee hearing, Manchin urged more domestic production of fossil fuels and said the Biden administration “continues to drag its feet” on domestic production of oil and gas on federal lands. And at a Thursday news conference for his Russian oil ban bill, Manchin said that while he supports Democratic efforts on clean energy, upping US production of fossil fuels is a more urgent matter.

“The bottom line is the production of fossil fuels right now,” Manchin told reporters. “Wind and solar (are) not going to put natural gas over there. We can build a pipeline in two to six months. Basically, the administration needs to step up and help us on that.”

Smith said that in order to build a domestic energy supply that is truly insulated from geopolitical conflicts and price spikes, the US needs to build out much more renewable energy at home.

“Let’s be clear, there’s significant subsidies the fossil sector already receives,” Smith said. “The energy future is moving towards clean and renewables. We should speed that transition because it’s going to insulate Americans from these energy price shocks.”

Manchin told reporters he’s not going to favor clean energy over fossil fuels in the immediate term.

“Absolutely we have to go forward with our climate solutions; I’ve always been all for that,” Manchin said. “But I’m not going to throw one out the window for the other.”

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