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.
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 (NEPA) that was rolled back by President Trump.
That GOP measure required just a simple majority to pass, making Mr. Manchin’s vote vital.
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.
“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 became a key political issue in Washington.
A condition for Mr. Manchin’s support of Democrats’ broader tax and climate spending bill — the Inflation Reduction Act — was that the review and permit processes for energy projects of all forms be overhauled and speeded up, which could boost both fossil fuel and clean energy production.
In a side deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, Mr. Manchin secured a host of energy plums.
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 chairman 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.
Mr. Sullivan argued that opposition by Democrats — minus Mr. Manchin — to his repeal of Mr. Biden’s NEPA policy was evidence the party is disingenuous about tackling permit reform.
“It’s a test for all senators on two key issues: First, are you really serious about permitting reform so that America can build the infrastructure that everyone knows the country desperately needs?” Mr. Sullivan said. “Second, who do you stand with: The working men and women who build things, or the far left, elite, special interest groups who want to shut this country down?”
West Virginia’s other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, has said she’s “very skeptical of what kind of deal can be cut on these kinds of very sensitive issues.”
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