The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ticking time bomb still threatening the big climate deal

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) departs after a vote on Capitol Hill on July 28. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Though days have passed since Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) shocked the political world by coming out for a big climate and health-care package, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has remained ominously silent. This led Manchin to appear on numerous Sunday shows to make a direct appeal to his Arizona counterpart, arguing that the bill deserves her support.

Yet even as we again endure the existential drama otherwise known as “Waiting for Sinema,” another, lesser-noticed threat to the climate deal is looming. In a worst-case scenario, it could bring down the whole package. But even if it doesn’t, it could do serious collateral damage along the way.

Some Democrats fear that if Republican senators can force votes on “poison pill” amendments to the package — particularly on immigration — it could create powerful pressure on vulnerable Democratic moderates to support those amendments, with potentially destructive effects.

One Democrat sounding this alarm is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a leading pro-immigrant rights lawmaker. He is urging Democrats to unite against all poison pill amendments, no matter how politically difficult it could be for senators facing tough reelection campaigns.

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“I call on all Democrats to stand firm and united against Republican amendments that would hurt immigrant families,” Menendez told me in an emailed statement.

This is a reminder of how precarious the effort to pass critical climate legislation with such narrow majorities has become — never mind that failure now might squander the last chance to do so for many years, which could be catastrophic. If a climate deal gets done, it will be an extraordinary achievement in the face of myriad circumstances working powerfully against it.

Immigration amendments are unrelated to the climate package, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars for transitioning to green energy, extending Affordable Care Act subsidies for millions, negotiating down prescription drug prices, reducing the deficit and more.

But the truth is, even if Democrats secure 50 votes to pass the package via the simple majority reconciliation process, Republicans might first get a chance to force some tough votes — and what happens then is anyone’s guess.

Take, for example, one scenario feared by some Democrats. In it, Republicans would offer an amendment codifying in federal law Title 42, the rule expelling asylum-seeking migrants without any hearing based on a bogus public health rationale.

A proposed bill already exists along these lines, one supported by some Democratic moderates and Republicans. It would require the restriction on asylum-seeking to remain as long as the federal state of emergency exists on covid-19.

President Biden has signaled an intent to end Title 42, but a court blocked this, keeping it in place. The proposed bill would codify the Title 42 restriction in law, blocking Biden from ending the Title 42 policy even if the administration wins the court case.

And that would be awful policy: It indefensibly ties border management to covid for an indeterminate period. This would dramatically roll back our commitments to international human rights values and to providing fair hearings to all seeking refuge from persecution and oppression.

Such a poison pill amendment “functionally ends asylum,” Kerri Talbot, deputy director of the Immigration Hub, told me. “Will the Democrats stick together and vote it down?”

Here’s the problem. With Republicans making the border a major issue in the midterms, a few Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns — such as Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire — might feel sorely tempted to vote for such an amendment.

Others who might vote for it include Manchin and Sinema. We know this because all these senators are already co-sponsors of the aforementioned bill that would codify Title 42. And in an evenly divided Senate, one defector means passage.

Republicans could offer other “poison pill” amendments, such as a requirement that construction of Donald Trump’s border wall resume. So what happens if one or more of these pass?

At that point, Menendez or other progressive senators might threaten to vote against the whole package — which would sink it.

“Adoption of amendments that would end access to asylum or expand Trump’s border wall will not repair our broken immigration and will put reconciliation at risk,” Menendez’s statement said. That is a not-so-veiled suggestion that adoption of such poison pills might imperil the whole climate deal.

But if the climate package passes with any such amendments, that would be a terrible outcome as well. It would further weaken our already wavering commitment to asylum seeking or worsen our immigration system in other ways.

It’s unclear how Democrats can prevent these tactics. Congressional scholar Sarah Binder tells me that federal law governing the reconciliation process allows a “vote-a-rama” on the minority’s amendments, with no “majority-imposed limit.” Not much can prevent this, aside from a deal between both parties’ Senate leaders, or perhaps mere “exhaustion,” Binder says.

Democrats have, of course, gotten through similar “vote-a-ramas” before. But in this case, Republicans can force Democrats to make some unusually terrible choices. So Democrats must hold firm against any such tactics, even if it’s politically hard.

We’re in a strange moment, one that simultaneously evokes both elation at the promise of a historic, epoch-defining breakthrough and deep dismay about the sheer sordidness and precarity that has defined this project all along. And just when you thought this process couldn’t get uglier, well, it just might.

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