Joe Manchin is convening meetings on clean energy and climate. But few know exactly what he wants out of a deal

With just weeks to go before a deadline, what exactly Democratic swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia wants in a package is still proving hard to pin down. Manchin restarted talks with the White House weeks ago on the contours of a slimmed down package to combat inflation, raise corporate taxes and fund clean energy investments — but those talks haven’t yet produced a deal.

Manchin raised eyebrows on Monday by convening a bipartisan group of senators to try to find areas of agreement on energy security and climate change.

“Monday’s meeting was an effort to gauge bipartisan interest in a path forward that addresses our nation’s climate and energy security needs head on,” Manchin’s spokesperson Sam Runyon told CNN in a statement.

North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, the lone Republican at the Monday meeting, told CNN that it’s his belief that Manchin has turned to more of a bipartisan approach on energy, rather than relying on the White House to negotiate a package with him.

“I think Manchin has been clear that he thinks Build Back Better is dead,” Cramer said, referencing the name for Biden and Democrats’ social spending plan that Manchin publicly rejected late last year. “I do n’t think he’s changed his mind about him. I do n’t get that sense. I do n’t know why he would be working on this possible bipartisan path and still reserve something for that.”

But leaving a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday, Manchin himself told reporters that the bipartisan talks weren’t necessarily replacing climate or clean energy provisions in a slimmer reconciliation bill. Manchin said those provisions would still be a “big factor” in any reconciliation bill.

Whether Manchin’s bipartisan energy talks amount to anything, the further delay they could cause is worrying Democratic senators who are watching the clock tick until Memorial Day — the unofficial deadline to hammer out a deal.

“I’m all for bipartisanship where we can find it, but time is of the essence,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, told CNN in a statement. “We can’t wait for another decade to pass legislation that averts the worst climate catastrophes.”

Veering in a bipartisan direction

At this point, if Democrats can get anything passed, it will be a Manchin-designed bill. But few Democrats know what Manchin exactly will agree to, beyond broad contours.

After opposing Biden’s Build Back Better bill in December, the West Virginia senator has laid out the broader points of what he wants to see: corporate taxes raised, deficit reduction and prescription drug reform enacted, and revenue generated spent on energy and climate provisions.

But the finer points of what Manchin could get to yes are still anyone’s guess and are further complicated by Manchin’s bipartisan group agreeing to discuss energy and energy security. That meeting came after Manchin went on a trip to Alaska with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski during Senate recess.

“When he came back after spending the whole week with Lisa, he was focused on is there a bipartisan path forward,” an advocacy source close to Manchin said.

Hope for a bipartisan solution was echoed by Ohio-based utility American Electric Power CEO Nick Akins, who is close to Manchin and told CNN in a recent interview he believes any energy bill moving forward will be bipartisan.

“I think it’s going to have to be bipartisan,” Akins said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult, particularly with the environment we’re at today with Sen. Manchin obviously concerned about the deficit and inflation, and they’re looking for some sort of tax provision while others — Sinema for example – – is against taxes,” referencing moderate Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Akins added, “It’s really a very difficult proposition to get through.”

While Sinema opposes raising the corporate tax rate, she has signaled openness to other changes in the tax code to pay for a slimmer reconciliation bill.

Another lobbyist close to Manchin’s team said they’re watching the bipartisan talks closely but cautioned that if there’s no deal struck by Memorial Day, it’s unlikely any bill can be resuscitated.

“Unless there’s real progress by Memorial Day, it’s not going to happen,” the lobbyist said. “The news about Manchin and Murkowski is important. I think they know each other well, they’re good friends, they’ve got a track record for doing something.”

Democrats are frustrated by complications and delays

Some climate advocates are finding a glimmer of hope in the fact that energy and climate are still a focal point of Manchin’s conversations, unlike many social programs he has nixed from any deal.

“We’re trying to be supportive of all the conversations, because one of them has to succeed,” said Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. But O’Mara also was skeptical that Republicans could agree with Manchin on things like tax increases — a big sticking point in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“I’m much less confident there can be an agreement on the pay-for side,” O’Mara said.

Many Senate Democrats say the bipartisan talks are an unnecessary distraction, and there is no way a clean energy tax package can garner 10 Republican votes — especially months before the midterms.

“Technology-neutral tax incentives are among the most Republican-friendly climate policy options that can plausibly meet our emission reduction needs, yet we received nothing but uniform Republican opposition” on a clean energy tax overhaul package, Wyden told CNN.

If nothing else, Democrats say they don’t have time for Manchin to test the waters on a bipartisan deal.

“This is our last, best chance to take action, and whether we do or not rests entirely in Manchin’s hands,” a senior Democratic aide told CNN. “It would be nice if Manchin would use his words from him and say, ‘I ca n’t do this, I ca n’t do that.’ But that’s not what we get.”

For members running for reelection, the urgency to do something to lower gas prices, curb inflation and overhaul the tax code is even greater. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona up for reelection this year, argued one of his top priorities would be lowering prescription drug prices, something Democrats had entertained including in their Build Back Better plan that Manchin torpedoed in December.

But Kelly downplayed that passing legislation would have an impact on his election.

“You know I served in organizations that had missions and goals and you worked to achieve that. It was rather straightforward. … This place doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t function well,” Kelly said. “I think it is important that we get this stuff done for the American people. I don’t think whether the White House knows exactly what Sen. Manchin would want to do on any specific thing, that is not my concern.”

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