Progressives flex against Manchin side-deal on permitting reform

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Progressive lawmakers opposed to Sen. Joe Manchin’s push for changes to the environmental review process are flexing their muscles, making a concerted effort to stop congressional leaders from fulfilling a deal with the West Virginia Democrat. 

The liberal House members are specifically pressing Democratic leaders to not include permitting reform to a stopgap funding measure Congress must pass by the end of the month to prevent an Oct. 1 government shutdown. 

The effort is just the latest battle progressive and moderate Democrats that has characterized President Biden’s first term in office so far. 

Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to pass “comprehensive permitting reform” by October when they announced a deal with Manchin on the massive climate, tax and health care bill that was signed into law by the president last month.  

The legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, was a major legislative victory for Democratic leaders, Manchin and the president. And it wouldn’t have happened without the side deal on permitting reform.  

But turning that deal between leaders and Manchin into reality is proving difficult.  

While only a broad outline of the permitting reform has been released publicly, it has already come under fire from progressives and other Democratic lawmakers who argue it would contribute to climate change and hurt the environment. They’ve raised concerns that it will speed up polluting and planet-warming fossil fuel projects, and that it could limit local input in projects that have the potential to harm communities.  

In the upper chamber, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the main liberal opponent. He gave a speech on the Senate floor decrying the measure as “a huge giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.” 

In the House, a large coalition of Democrats have come out against the deal, asking Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) not to put it into government-funding legislation.  

Doing so would “force Members to choose between protecting [environmental justice] communities from further pollution or funding the government,” the lawmakers said in a letter signed by 77 House Democrats.  

Five new signatures were announced on Monday; most of the signatories are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but about 20 are not.  

The widespread opposition among Democrats poses a quandary for House leadership, as they won’t want to burn the bridge with Manchin, who they may need to pass legislation in the future. They also don’t want to anger a third of their members or risk shutting down the government ahead of the midterm elections.  

By coming out in large numbers, progressives showed they may be able to rally a big group of members to block the permitting reform push. 

In a new written statement on Monday, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) warned that if they put the permitting reform provisions in a government-funding measure known as a continuing resolution or “CR,” leadership could be risking a shutdown.  

“I don’t know how a CR vote will go if it includes the permitting rider, but the opposition is loud and only getting louder. I encourage leadership to listen to its caucus and keep us out of a shutdown standoff that nobody wants,” Grijalva, a former progressive caucus chairman, told The Hill.  

“Give us a clean CR and let these dirty permitting provisions stand up to congressional scrutiny on their own. Now is not the time to roll the dice on a government shutdown,” he added.  

If House leaders side with Manchin, the fate of both the reforms and government funding could be up to Republicans.  

Republicans have historically supported some of the same policies that Manchin is pushing for, arguing that lengthy reviews have delayed important projects and hurt industry. But ahead of the midterms, they may have little interest in helping Democrats fund the government to solve an internal Democratic Party fight that would also put the finishing touches on a major policy accomplishment for Biden.  

On Monday, the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House, released a memo detailing several reasons why its members may not support the stopgap funding measure. 

The memo notes that a short-term spending package may give Democrats a chance to pass longer-term funding for next year with left-wing priorities, instead of putting it off until Republicans retake the majority, as they are expected to do next year.  

It also lamented the possibility of including liberal policy riders broadly and warned that the not-yet-released permitting reforms “may favor Green New Deal projects.”

Schumer has already publicly committed to putting the permitting reform in a continuing resolution, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has also said that Biden is backing the effort.  

Pelosi’s office did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.  

The latest kerfuffle between progressives and moderates comes after months of negotiations and fighting over what would make it into Democrats’ climate and tax bill, the ambition of which was repeatedly shrunk because of opposition from Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).  

There is currently no legislative text explaining what the permitting reform changes will look like in detail.  

A summary released by Manchin’s office says that it will include time limits for environmental impact reviews, restrictions on state powers to ax projects that run through their waters and requirements for the president to designate certain priority projects to speed up.  

It is also expected to require the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia. 

Some Democrats who support Manchin are seeking to make a climate change case for permitting reform, arguing it would also speed up green energy projects.  

Manchin made that case last week, telling reporters “if I thought it was going to be harmful for the climate, I would have never done it.” 

“There’s people talking about hydrogen plants, we’re talking about small nuclear reactors, we’re talking about solar farms and wind farms, but we have to have the fossil horsepower that we need right now to run the country,” he added. 

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