The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden eyes climate emergency declaration as Democrats demand swift action

White House officials are scrambling to advance the president’s environmental agenda after talks with Sen. Joe Manchin III stalled

President Biden hosts the White House Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn on July 12. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

President Biden is considering whether to declare a national climate emergency in the coming weeks, as he seeks to salvage his stalled environmental agenda and satisfy Democrats on Capitol Hill, who demanded on Tuesday a swift, aggressive response to global warming.

The new calls for action came as Biden prepared to speak Wednesday about the increasingly evident consequences of a rapidly changing planet. Another punishing heat wave descended on the central United States this week, as a similar weather pattern spread wildfires and broke temperature records in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

At the White House, top officials contemplated issuing a new emergency declaration, hoping it might aid the government’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and foster cleaner energy, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.

Biden does not plan to declare a climate emergency when he delivers a speech Wednesday in Somerset, Mass., the White House later confirmed, acknowledging it has not ruled out issuing such a declaration at another time. But those familiar with the president’s thinking said that other executive action may be imminent. Administration officials have emphasized in recent days that all options are on the table as Biden seeks to meet his ambitious climate goals.

The internal scramble reflected the political bind facing Democrats, who took power in Washington 1½ years ago and set about trying to use their rare majorities to enact historic climate-related investments. Repeatedly, however, those hopes have been dashed — with the latest setback coming last week when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) raised renewed concerns about his party’s broader spending ambitions.

With an unprecedented political window rapidly closing, a slew of lawmakers Tuesday emphasized the need for the White House to take the reins. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the leader of the Senate Budget Committee, urged the Biden administration to act “given the global crisis we’re facing, given the inability of Congress to address the existential threat.” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), meanwhile, stressed to reporters that the White House has “a lot of power, and we really want them to use that power to do things.”

Some Democrats said they remained torn — hopeful they could still woo Manchin, but wary after more than a year of false starts. In a sign of the potential hurdles they face, though, Manchin even skipped a party lunch Tuesday, where one member of his caucus delivered an impassioned plea for an aggressive response to a warming globe.

“Right now you’ve got Europe on fire, record temperatures in Great Britain. … They’re trying to have the Tour de France and they’re having problems keeping enough water to keep people going,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “And we’re here talking about not doing climate before the end of this session. I think that’s an incredible mistake.”

Biden's plan to curb catastrophic warming is running out of time

The president himself pledged extensive executive action on climate change last week, as talks collapsed between Democratic leaders and Manchin over a broader economic spending package.

“My actions will create jobs, improve our energy security, bolster domestic manufacturing and supply chains, protect us from oil and gas price hikes in the future, and address climate change,” Biden promised in a statement Friday, adding: “I will not back down: The opportunity to create jobs and build a clean energy future is too important to relent.”

Beginning last year, Democrats initially hoped to invest more than $500 billion in new programs to cut emissions and support new technologies, including electric vehicles. But Manchin repeatedly raised objections to the legislation known as the Build Back Better Act — questioning its costs and the scope of some of its proposals to penalize the worst polluters.

Manchin’s opposition would be politically fatal, because party lawmakers require his vote to advance any bill using the process known as reconciliation. The tactic allows Democrats in the narrowly divided chamber to sidestep a Republican filibuster, as GOP lawmakers unanimously have opposed new federal climate spending.

This spring, Democrats set about rethinking their plans, eyeing what might have been $300 billion in climate-focused investments in a bid to satisfy Manchin. Many lawmakers, including Carper, believed they were on the verge of a breakthrough with the senator from coal-heavy West Virginia. But the moderate senator soon withdrew his support, telling Democrats last week that he could not cast a vote for such a large sum with inflation hitting 40-year highs.

Manchin later expressed an openness to tackling climate change but said he would do so only after seeing another round of economic indicators next month. Many Democrats quickly said they did not want to take the risk, leaving them no choice but to shelve their plans entirely — and focus their attention instead on health-care proposals Manchin does support.

“Americans are getting mugged at the checkout counter,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leader of the tax-focused Senate Finance Committee, said in response to rising drug prices. He added that lawmakers needed to adopt a bill and “get relief in this work period,” referring to the push to finalize legislation before the August recess.

To that end, Democratic leaders on Tuesday set in motion a plan to advance their long-stalled economic package without climate provisions, focused narrowly on prescription drug coverage for seniors and insurance subsidies for some Americans. Many stressed it would still deliver significant financial relief for families, securing new spending that helps lower health care costs.

“That’s what we’re doing on reconciliation,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at his weekly news conference, stressing that their work would help millions of seniors see lower drug costs.

Some in the party signaled they would be willing to wait for an agreement. On Twitter, Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) late Tuesday stressed Democrats are “much closer to a climate deal than people realize,” adding lawmakers should not “throw in the towel just yet.”

“Fighting climate change is more important than any August recess,” he added.

Here's what President Biden's doing to tackle climate change

In the meantime, the debacle on Capitol Hill only has added to the pressure on Biden, as he prepares to deliver his speech Wednesday reemphasizing his commitment to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade compared with 2005 levels. The White House has billed the address as one focused on “tackling the climate crisis and seizing the opportunity of a clean energy future to create jobs and lower costs for families.”

Speaking later Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the president would not use the address to invoke a national climate emergency. She declined to say why Biden decided against doing so now, and she acknowledged the option remains on the table.

Jean-Pierre did not provide specifics of just how the administration would use such a declaration if it does invoke it in the coming weeks. But she emphasized that issuing such an emergency designation would be different from a public health emergency declaration — something Democrats and abortion activists have been pushing the White House to do in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Some climate activists have urged the White House in recent months to deploy an emergency declaration to maximum effect, arguing that it would allow the president to halt crude oil exports, limit oil and gas drilling in federal waters, and direct agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency to boost renewable-energy sources.

“Starting with an emergency declaration is a good place to start, but then you actually have to do the things to lower emissions,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters Tuesday, adding that he is “looking forward to those steps.” Asked whether the White House had talked to members of Congress about issuing a climate emergency, Whitehouse merely replied, “Yes.”

The president faces a tough balancing act as he seeks to calibrate his response to a warming planet with the economic reality of high gas prices. The policies could aid in Biden’s quest to halve U.S. emissions by the end of the decade compared with 2005 levels, though they still fall short of what Biden aimed to enact through his Build Back Better plan.

Any new executive action on climate also could face a formidable court challenge, which could affect the future of environmental regulations. Last month, the Supreme Court cut back the federal government’s powers to regulate power plants’ carbon emissions.

Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.