Sen. Joe Manchin III bucked his fellow Democrats Thursday by voting with all Republicans to roll back environmental regulations set by President Biden in a bid to streamline infrastructure and energy projects.
The centrist West Virginia senator was the lone Democrat to back the forced vote from Senate Republicans, allowing it to pass 50-47 in the evenly split chamber.
While the measure faces certain defeat in the Democratic-led House, the vote offered a glimpse into the political battles that lie ahead in the coming weeks when Democrats will try to pass energy-permit reform.
Mr. Manchin has crafted a bill to cut bureaucratic red tape on the subject, which will require the backing of at least 10 GOP senators to overcome a filibuster — potentially more, if far-left members refuse to get on board.
On Thursday, the three senators who did not vote were Republican John Cornyn of Texas, who has COVID-19, Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon, whose mother is dying, and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who is recovering from hip surgery.
The vote came amid the debate raging in Washington over Democrats’ broader tax and climate spending bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, which the Senate hopes to pass along party lines next week. In exchange for Mr. Manchin’s support, Democratic leadership and the White House agreed to Mr. Manchin’s desire to streamline the permit process for energy projects.
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The Senate will begin moving the Inflation Reduction Act through the chamber Saturday afternoon with a procedural vote, as Democrats await to hear where holdout Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, stands.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, used the Congressional Review Act to force Thursday’s vote to repeal Mr. Biden’s reinstatement of core climate regulation under the National Environmental Policy Act that was rolled back by former President Donald Trump.
That GOP measure required just a simple majority to pass, making Mr. Manchin’s vote vital.
Mr. Manchin, in a statement, called the Biden administration’s approach to energy permitting “dead wrong” and the NEPA rules “burdensome.” He expressed the hope that his permit reform will garner the bipartisan approval it needs when Congress considers it next month.
“I hope every Republican that voted for this legislation today will support the bipartisan permitting reform bill when it comes before the Senate in September,” the Democrat said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pleaded for “at least one Democrat to see the light” and kill the NEPA rule, a policy that predates the Trump era and that Republicans have long blamed for years of delays while awaiting unnecessary and extensive environmental reviews.
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“Catering to radical environmentalists, the new Biden rule reinstates sweeping jurisdiction for federal bureaucrats to slow down all sorts of critical infrastructure,” the Kentucky Republican said. “The Democratic action is taking a process already known for years-long waiting periods and multi-hundred-page federal reports and making it worse.”
Although its journey will soon end in the House, permit reform is about to be placed under a microscope and become a key political issue in Washington.
In a side deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, Mr. Manchin secured a host of energy plums designed to boost both fossil fuel and clean energy production.
The centrist West Virginia Democrat won everything from a long-sought $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline in West Virginia and time limits for permit reviews to a statute of limitations for court challenges and a presidential designation to fast-track over two dozen high-priority energy infrastructure projects.
Democrats don’t like it, but they know it’s vital to get Mr. Manchin’s support, whom they need to pass the Inflation Reduction Act along party lines in a 50-50 Senate.
“Sen. Schumer and Sen. Manchin said permitting has got to be part of it, and if they say that’s part of the deal, then we’ve got to keep our eye on the prize,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Let’s not miss that opportunity.”
Green groups have not held their tongues in the same fashion. They consider it to be the “latest attack on environmental review.”
Although permit reform also benefits clean energy like wind and solar, it speeds along fossil fuel projects, a move climate activists vehemently oppose and argue would negate any pro-green policies.
Republicans and the energy industry have long demanded permit reform, but GOP lawmakers have little faith Democrats will come through in the face of opposition from environmentalists.
Republicans argued the opposition by Democrats — minus Mr. Manchin — to the repeal of Mr. Biden’s NEPA policy was evidence the party is disingenuous about tackling permit reform.
West Virginia’s other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, said the “near unanimous opposition from Senate Democrats makes it incredibly hard to believe strong permitting reform will be taken seriously next month.”
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a climate hawk, suggested Republicans were already trying to negotiate in bad faith.
“If they want to be part of the process to reduce fossil fuel emissions and participate in discussions on permitting reform, they are entirely welcome. But it doesn’t start by trying to weaken current law,” she said. “It starts by coming to the negotiating table and talking about what changes we need to make in order to cut carbon emissions.”