How environmental wonks may help Biden unlock the debt ceiling crisis

How environmental wonks may help Biden unlock the debt ceiling crisis

When JOHN PODESTA delivered a speech Wednesday laying out the administration’s priorities for reforming the federal government’s permitting process, some Republicans in Congress saw it as a sign of the White House moving their way in the negotiations tying up the debt ceiling being lifted.

Podesta is President JOE BIDEN’s senior adviser tasked with implementing his climate agenda. So his comments carry serious weight. But the White House noted that the remarks were scheduled long before the debt limit discussions had reached this phase. And Podesta did not deviate from the administration’s position that raising the debt limit is not negotiable.

“The threat of default should never be used in policy fights,” he said during his speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If you want to talk about permitting, we should talk about permitting.”

Still, two sources familiar with the ongoing spending negotiations over the debt limit increase confirmed that permitting reform is on the table — and viewed within the White House and on Capitol Hill as, potentially, a key piece of an eventual agreement that could give House Speaker KEVIN MCCARTHY enough political cover to agree to a revised debt ceiling increase.

McCarthy included the House GOP’s permitting legislation, known as “The BUILDER Act,” in their sweeping package of spending cuts that included a debt ceiling hike and passed narrowly last month. Biden continues to insist on a clean debt ceiling increase. But he did begin direct talks about a compromise on a separate spending bill starting with Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting.

While those talks are in the early stages, Podesta and other top advisers increasingly view permitting reform as a priority both sides share and, perhaps, the low-hanging fruit in an eventual agreement.

“We’ve been clear we support permitting reform,” White House assistant press secretary MICHAEL KIKUKAWA said. “We have seen bipartisan support for permitting reform and certainly hope there is bipartisan progress. But we’re not going to detail what negotiators are discussing.”

Speeding up the permitting process for energy projects has been likened to the successful bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021 — a priority both parties share even if their rationales differ. Republicans want to expedite oil and gas drilling. Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to ensure that the $200 billion of new clean energy investments sparked by the tax incentives in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act actually come online fast enough to help the U.S. meet its emissions reduction goals.

“We need to build transmission, we need to build offshore wind, we need to build utility scale solar, hydrogen pipelines, CO2 pipelines, direct air capture, we need to build a lot of stuff,” said Rep. SCOTT PETERS (D-Calif.). “And we have laws from the 1970s that are designed to slow bad stuff down.”

Despite these overlapping interests, there is disagreement on big details. The GOP, for example, is reluctant to support measures that give the federal government more of a role in approving interstate transmission lines that deliver clean power to urban areas, the top priority for Democrats.

But the major bills that are on the table have some level of overlap, including a revised proposal introduced last week from Sen. JOE MANCHIN, chair of the Energy Committee, a bill expected soon from Environment and Public Works Committee Chair TOM CARPER, and legislation from the ranking members of those panels, Sens. JOHN BARRASSO and SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO — along with the House GOP proposal.

During a committee hearing on his bill Thursday, Manchin urged everyone involved in permitting proposals to work expeditiously to come up with a compromise. “We can get together much quicker if we’re all in this, and I think we are,” Manchin said. “We want this done and everybody wants it done.”

Merging those measures into a bipartisan bill isn’t without complications, especially with Manchin, who faces a tough reelection fight next year and has taken the White House to task for its approach to environmental regulations. In exchange for supporting the reconciliation deal that enabled Democrats to pass $369 billion in climate spending last summer, Manchin secured a promise from Democratic leaders to attach his permitting proposal to a piece of must-pass legislation. But the effort failed amid GOP frustrations with Manchin for his decisive vote on the IRA and the opposition of some Democrats who didn’t want to spur more fossil fuel projects.

The White House, which supported Manchin’s permitting proposal last year, has put forth a permitting reform blueprint that focused almost exclusively on electric transmission projects to bring more renewable energy projects to the grid. The administration has signaled a desire to work with Republicans on the issue, while making clear they’re far more amenable to Senate proposals than the more fossil-fuel focused House bill.

Within the broader context of the debt limit talks and the vast ideological divides on spending related to the social safety net, public services and taxes, permitting appears to be perhaps the most fertile ground for a bipartisan compromise to take root.


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