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Can Republicans Reverse Democrats’ New Climate Law?

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by the House of Representatives today, is about to become the first comprehensive climate legislation in American history. Compared with Congress’s desultory approach to the issue in the past, the numbers are striking: The legislation will spend roughly $374 billion on decarbonization and climate resilience over the next 10 years, getting us two-thirds of the way to the country’s Paris Agreement goals.

But perhaps the most important number about the package is zero. Zero Republicans in the House. Zero Republicans in the Senate. The IRA was adopted entirely along party lines, with all Democrats and not a single congressional Republican in support of the legislation.

The number drives home an unmistakable reality: Even after years of effort from environmentalists, climate change remains a starkly partisan issue in America. The bill only passed because there were 50 Democrats in the Senate, with a Democratic vice president to cast the tie-breaking vote. Had any of those Democrats lost their elections—had Joe Manchin, for instance, decided against running for reelection in 2018 in his heavily Republican home state, or had Democrats not eked out two Senate wins in Georgia last year—then the bill would not have made it across the finish line.

The “no” votes included every congressional Republican who has publicly committed to some measure of climate action, including all 23 House Republicans who are on the Climate Solutions Caucus. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who recently wrote in The Atlantic that America was “in denial” about the scale of the climate threat, opposed the bill, as did Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate who has spoken about how climate change is transforming her state.

Granted, the Inflation Reduction Act is not only a climate bill, and Republicans oppose it for reasons beyond its climate policy. During congressional debate over the past week, GOP lawmakers have generally spent more time attacking the bill’s tax and health-care provisions than its energy measures. “Today, Democrats returned to their same tired playbook to raise taxes, spend more money, and expand the size of government,” Romney said in a statement after his vote. “Rather than listening to the American people who are suffering from inflation, Democrats have voted for a liberal wish list.” His statement alluded to the climate provisions only once, in an allegation that the IRA “reduces oil and gas production.”

The GOP’s intransigence comes despite years of efforts aimed at getting Republicans to sign onto climate policy. Since Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, first put together a cap-and-trade bill in 2003, environmentalists have held out hope that the parties could come together to address the issue. That never worked out: Even McCain bailed on climate talks during Obama’s presidency.

Republican-led climate efforts have also failed to bear fruit. Since the George H. W. Bush administration, the GOP’s pro-fossil-fuel faction has treated climate policy as an existential threat that must be prevented at any cost. In 2017, a set of GOP graybeards endorsed a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a sufficiently conservative solution to the climate problem. But the party rejected it when rewriting parts of the tax code the following year.

And President Donald Trump went further, arguing that fossil fuels, especially coal, are not natural resources with environmental and economic trade-offs but an unadulterated positive good that should be whole-heartedly embraced.

The GOP hasn’t been totally unwilling to address climate issues. Republicans have supported smaller, more incremental bills that tackle more limited aspects of the climate problem. If you look there, a more hopeful through line comes into view, Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican House member from South Florida who tried to forge a carbon-tax deal while in Congress, told me.

“There’s been an unmistakable trend in Congress favoring bipartisan climate action up until Manchin-Schumer,” Curbelo said. He cited a series of smaller wins—a major 2020 energy law; a ban on hydrofluorocarbons, a category of climate super-pollutant; and the climate provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure deal—that show a gathering momentum on policy. “This was a partisan process from the very beginning;all reconciliation bills are. We shouldn’t read too much into Republicans’ opposition to this legislation,” he added. “And what is more likely is that, once this is behind us, the trend resumes.”

Even if Republicans are making a stink about the bill now, it’s possible that they “can then be constructive in some more behind-the-scenes follow-up,” Kristin Eberhard, the climate-policy director at the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank with libertarian roots, told me. Last year in Washington State, Republicans voted unanimously against an ambitious cap-and-trade bill, but then helped create a more productive follow-up to the bill, she said.

That may not happen in national politics, which remains significantly more ideological and acrimonious than a West Coast statehouse. But national Republicans will have an opportunity to work with Democrats on the climate if they so choose, she observed. As part of his deal with Senator Joe Manchin over the IRA, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to bring a bill loosening some environmental permitting rules to the Senate floor. Permitting reform was a major plank of the climate policy that House Republicans announced earlier this year.

But if the GOP sticks to its steadfast opposition to any significant climate policy, that could have complications for the IRA going forward. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law early next week, but at some point, can Republicans reverse it? In a way, the question is meaningless. Congress can do anything it wants within its constitutional limits. The geography of the Senate is skewed against Democrats’ current demographic coalition, and there’s a good chance the GOP will take over the chamber in November. If Republicans win 60 votes in the Senate, creating a filibuster-proof majority, then no possibility is off-limits. And Biden’s approval rating is near historic lows, opening the door for a Republican to win the White House in two years.

But some parts of the IRA will be much, much harder to reverse than others. By January 2025, when Biden’s first term ends, tens of millions of dollars from the bill will already be spent. “In two years, a lot can get started, and a lot can get planned, and some steel is going to be in the ground,” Nathan Iyer, an associate at RMI, a nonpartisan energy think tank, told me. Any infrastructure that is built by 2025—new solar farms, wind turbines, factories—would have to be torn up or excessively taxed to be taken out of commission once Republicans take power.

But there will be many important policies only starting to be felt by the end of 2024. The new clean-energy electricity tax credits, for instance, which are projected to provide a large share of the bill’s emissions reductions, will not come into effect until 2025. When that policy is fully in effect, then removing it could hike electricity bills, discouraging Republicans from repeal, but a Republican White House might be able to act before the policy goes fully into effect. (A less complete version of the policy, applying only to some zero-carbon technologies, will already be in effect.)

It is possible for Republicans to reverse those provisions, but that seems unlikely unless “a strong ideological call” develops to trash the entire package, Iyer said. During the Trump administration, Republicans did not gut an earlier version of the tax credits, which applied only to renewable energy, although they did reduce their value. And Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite years of insisting that they would try.

By 2025, even if clean-energy facilities have not yet opened, construction on many will be under way, Iyer said. The odds are good that most of those new facilities will be in red states. A recent Bloomberg survey found that the congressional districts with the most planned wind, solar, and battery capacity are overwhelmingly Republican-led; GOP-led states dominate the manufacturing industry too. Repealing the IRA would also take away the expanded carbon-capture and removal subsidies that oil companies are already banking on.

When clean-energy companies break ground or make investments in GOP districts, they should be clear about what policy is making their new facilities possible, Iyer said. By the time that Republicans can undo the IRA, he said, their constituents may be the ones whose jobs are on the line.

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