with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Democrats eye climate in big infrastructure push

President Biden and congressional Democrats are already bracing for the next big legislative fight — a major infrastructure package that may aim to bolster clean energy.

But a cacophony of competing demands is already threatening to divide Democrats who have largely united behind the coronavirus relief bill currently being debated in Congress. 

As Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and I report, Biden met Wednesday with senior leadership of the AFL-CIO and other labor unions at the White House and discussed both the current relief package and the coming infrastructure push.

“We are so far behind the curve. We rank like 38th in the world in terms of infrastructure, everything from canals to highways to airports, to everything we can do and we need to do to make ourselves competitive in the 21st Century,” Biden said as the Oval Office meeting got underway.

The calls for boosting spending on infrastructure comes as the power system in Texas reels from a winter storm that has left more than 500,000 customers without electricity as of Thursday morning.

The next bill will be a daunting test for Biden as he moves on from addressing the pandemic.

Senior Democratic officials have discussed proposing as much as $3 trillion in new spending as part of a wide-ranging jobs and infrastructure package that would be the foundation of Biden’s “Build Back Better” program, according to three people granted anonymity to share details of private deliberations. 

Unlike under former president Donald Trump, whose many “Infrastructure Week” efforts sputtered, Biden is expected to take a big swing at the issue and package together funding for expanded broadband networks, bridge and road repairs as well as technology that reduces greenhouse gasses.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden’s plan “will make historic investments in infrastructure — in the auto industry, in transit, in the power sector — creating millions of good union jobs, and in the process, also addressing the climate crisis head-on.” 

But it’s unclear when the package will be officially unveiled. Biden said Jan. 14 he would lay out his recovery plan during his first appearance before a joint session of Congress the following month, but no date was announced. Psaki said Wednesday he would not detail plans for the next legislation until the coronavirus relief bill is passed and signed into law.

When it comes to climate change, Democrats are unified in principle but divided on the details.

Climate hawks and moderates disagree over reducing production of natural gas and whether to enact a tax on gasoline or carbon.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing a tax rebates for people who turn in internal-combustion engines and buy electric cars. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), meanwhile, has discussed green energy initiatives with administration officials.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed to the energy crisis in Texas as reason to reinvest in the electric grid. "Together, we must build back better an electric grid that’s cheaper, cleaner and more reliable," she said Wednesday.

But whether Biden will try to roll these major goals into one package appears uncertain. Senior Democrats have discussed the possibility that the package could be cleaved into separate, smaller pieces of legislation that could be passed through Congress on a piecemeal basis, particularly if Republicans are willing to support a stand-alone bipartisan infrastructure deal.

One of the most immediate questions confronting Democrats: Go bipartisan, or go it alone?

Democrats have supported expediting Biden’s coronavirus relief package with no GOP votes, but centrist lawmakers could balk again approving the measure through the budget procedure known as reconciliation. 

“I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around how we use reconciliation without undermining our success working across the aisle,” said Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Yet he and other Democrats say climate change is too urgent of a problem for the party to do nothing when it has full control of Congress and the White House. “We may come to a point where it's impossible to find common ground with our Republican colleagues, and we'll have to resort to reconciliation,” Carper said. 

Some environmental advocates are arguing that a go-it-alone strategy could be the only way to get one of Biden's biggest environmental priorities into law: eliminating greenhouse gas pollution from power plants by 2035.

Two left-leaning groups, Evergreen Action and Data for Progress, have sketched out several ways of trying to put zero-emissions requirements on electric utilities through the budget-writing process. 

There is some momentum among Democrats to pursue that strategy. “The most important thing is that we listen really carefully, we build a broad coalition and we keep all of the options that we have on the table to get this done, including reconciliation,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted temperature fluctuations are already posing a risk to her state’s cherry crops. She does not want to wait until the next farm package, due in 2023, to start offering more aid to growers.

“We can't wait until the next farm bill,” she said. “This is very serious and I feel a great sense of urgency to get started on the things that need to be done. So I'm going to look for whatever vehicle will allow us to do that.”

Read more here: 

Power plays

Texas is restoring power — slowly.

About half a million people still lack power in Texas, down from a peak of more than 4 million earlier in the week. The Biden administration has said that it will provide emergency power generators and diesel to the state. Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, is under pressure to resign.

The crisis isn't over: “The second major winter storm to hit Texas in quick succession is predicted to spread disruptive amounts of frozen precipitation from northern Louisiana and Mississippi through the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast through early Friday. Meanwhile, San Antonio and Austin may be brushed with one more rounds of snow Thursday before conditions finally start to improve by the weekend,” our colleagues with the Capitol Weather Gang report.

Tucker Carlson continues his misleading spin on the wind turbines in Texas.

The Fox News pundit again falsely claimed on his program Wednesday evening that frozen wind turbines are the main reason for the power outages in Texas, claiming that “journalists and the politicians they exist to protect are lying to you" if they say otherwise.

Conservatives like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have been falsely blaming renewable energy as the cause of the state’s massive power outages. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

In reality: The state's own grid officials say the loss of power from thermal plants — that is, gas, coal and nuclear — is significantly greater than decline in output expected from the stalled wind turbines. Just as wind turbines can seize up in the cold, so too can instrumentation at traditional power plants freeze over if they are not built properly for the winter weather.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) defended comments he made during a recent Fox News interview, in which he blamed the state's power failures on wind turbines without mentioning the loss of power from other energy sources. “What I made clear was the fact that if we relied solely upon green energy, that would be a challenge,” he said Wednesday.

HUD's failure to enforce its environmental standards contributed to children living in lead-contaminated housing.

An inspector general report obtained by The Washington Post found that the housing agency had failed to identify health risks to residents of public housing near toxic waste dumps in an East Chicago, Ind., apartment complex, our colleague Tracy Jan reports.

The West Calumet Housing Complex was built in 1972 atop a former lead smelting plant. Even after the Environmental Protection Agency discovered high levels of lead in 1985, HUD’s Indianapolis field office did not conduct the required environmental reviews. The apartment complex was deemed uninhabitable in 2016.

The housing agency repeatedly failed to enforce its environmental regulations, despite investigations by federal and state health departments that found elevated blood lead levels in children living near the site. 

House Democrats are preparing a public lands package for a vote next week.

The package would protect more than 1.3 million acres as wilderness in the West and prohibit new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, Bloomberg News reports.

The legislation contains eight different conservation or wilderness bills that the House passed last year but which languished in the GOP-controlled Senate. If the legislation is more successful this time around with Democrats in control of the Senate, it could help Biden achieve his goal of conserving 30 percent of all U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Ford aims to go all-electric in Europe by 2030.

The automaker announced that it plans to spend $1 billion to revamp its factory in Cologne, Germany to produce a new battery-powered car that uses Volkswagen’s mechanical framework, the Associated Press reports.

The company expects two-thirds of all of its European commercial vehicle sales to be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2030, and all of its passenger vehicles to be battery-electric.

Extra mileage

Volunteers are racing to rescue cold-stunned sea turtles in Texas.

When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the endangered sea turtles can enter a state of hypothermic shock, floating comatose above the water and sometimes washing ashore, our colleague Teo Armus reports. Such temperatures are a rarity in South Padre Island, and in a normal year, volunteers might rescue anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred turtles.

This year has been different. As thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles started washing up around Texas’s South Padre Island amid record-low temperatures, volunteers have sprung into action. By late Tuesday, volunteers with Sea Turtle, Inc., had transported 3,500 turtles for rehabilitation at the town's convention center, Armus writes.