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A Bipartisan Climate Policy? It Could Happen Under a Biden Administration, Washington Veterans Say


Many environmentalists hoped that Joe Biden would become the FDR of climate change.

But if, as seems likely, Biden emerges as the winner of a deeply divisive presidential election, in which the Republican Party retains control of the Senate, it is more likely he will need the skills of an LBJ. And climate policy, in a Biden era, could end up looking more like President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s hard-fought civil rights legislation than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal, say veterans of Washington’s energy policy battles.

When Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion climate plan, the most ambitious ever proposed by a major party candidate, the Democrats were aiming to pick up the three Senate seats they needed for a majority that would support Biden’s plan. And although that is still a distant possibility, the results from Tuesday’s election so far show Republicans have held onto contested seats in Maine, Montana, Iowa and South Carolina, and remain ahead in Alaska and North Carolina.

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Now the Democrats’ best chance to gain full control of Congress is to win both of the two Senate runoff races set for January in Georgia, a state that has not elected a Democratic senator since 1997. If Republicans maintain Senate control, any Biden climate legislation would have to get past Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a skilled legislative blockader and a longtime Kentucky ally of the coal industry.

But industry and environmental advocates alike say that Biden, who spent more than 40 years in the Senate, is uniquely suited to the challenge of dealing with McConnell—and with former colleagues of both parties. They are anticipating that Biden will be able to do more in the face of a hostile Congress than did President Barack Obama, who relied on a series of executive actions on climate that President Donald Trump has spent the past four years overturning.

Climate policy watchers expect Biden to engage Capitol Hill on green stimulus and Covid relief, including measures that already enjoy bipartisan support like infrastructure, farm aid and support for renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. And perhaps, packaged with the right incentives, that might even include economy-wide legislation that puts a price on carbon. At least one Capitol Hill veteran argues that partisan disadvantage may be an advantage in the long run, for the stability of climate policy.

When one party controls both the White House and Congress, “there’s a tendency to want to run it down the left-hand side of the field,” said Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina and the executive director of RepublicEn, a conservative climate action group. “And then when the pendulum swings, it can be undone. A divided government situation may give rise to the best opportunity for a durable climate solution.”

Opportunities for Progress

Although extended post-election legal wrangling looms, thanks to Trump’s legal challenges to the vote counts in states where he is foundering, climate action advocates already are looking ahead to what policy options would be open to Biden if his narrow electoral advantage holds.

“We have to make sure that political victories turn into climate, climate justice and racial justice policies,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which spent more than $100 million in an effort to defeat Trump and elect pro-environmental candidates all down the ballot.