72 House Democrats tell Pelosi to keep Manchin's dirty deal out of must-pass legislation
Nancy Pelosi AFP / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

More than 70 House Democrats told their party's leadership on Friday that they oppose efforts to attach federal permitting reforms backed by Sen. Joe Manchin to must-pass government funding legislation, arguing the proposed changes would endanger the climate and frontline communities.

In a new letter signed by an ideologically diverse array of House Democrats—including members of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the New Democrat Coalition—lawmakers warn that the "destructive provisions" negotiated behind closed doors by Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "will allow polluting manufacturing and energy development projects to be rushed through before the families who are forced to live near them are even aware of the plans."

"These permitting 'reforms' would weaken other important public health protections, including the Clean Water Act and more."

"The proposed legislation would restrict public access to the courts to seek remedies against illegal project development; place arbitrary limits on the amount of time the public is given to comment on polluting projects; and curtail public input, environmental review, and government accountability," the letter notes, emphasizing that a recently circulated legislative draft appears to bear the watermark of the American Petroleum Institute (API)—an indication of the fossil fuel industry's influence over the permitting plan.

"The API plan would require a certain number of harmful fossil fuel projects to be designated as 'projects of strategic national importance' to receive priority federal support, assistance, and expedited environmental review," warns the letter, which was led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair emeritus of the CPC. "These permitting 'reforms' would weaken other important public health protections, including the Clean Water Act and more."

The letter's 72 signatories call on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to "ensure that these provisions are kept out of a continuing resolution or any other must-pass legislation this year."

"We remain deeply concerned that these serious and detrimental permitting provisions will significantly and disproportionately impact low-income communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color," the lawmakers wrote. "The inclusion of these provisions in a continuing resolution, or any other must-pass legislation, would silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny."

The letter, which has been circulating among Democratic lawmakers in recent days, was released after Schumer made clear this week that he intends to move ahead with permitting reforms, which he negotiated with Manchin in a bid to win the fossil fuel industry ally's support for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

"Permitting reform is part of the IRA," Schumer told reporters Wednesday. "We will get it done."

Democratic leaders are expected to try to attach the permitting reforms to government funding legislation that must pass before the end of the month to avert a partial shutdown. The bill needs a majority vote in the House and at least 60 votes in the Senate.

But the growing revolt from progressive members of the Democratic caucus and other rank-and-file lawmakers could throw a wrench in the leadership's—and Manchin's—plans to ram the permitting reforms through as part of a broader package.

In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blasted the permitting reforms as a "dirty side deal" that would worsen the climate emergency to pad the profits of oil and gas corporations.

Speaking to reporters following his speech, Sanders unequivocally said he would vote against a government funding package that includes permitting reforms aimed at fast-tracking pipelines and other fossil fuel projects.

"Yes," Sanders replied when asked how he would vote. "You're talking about the future of the planet."

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a signatory to the new letter from House Democrats, has also vowed to vote no on any spending measure that includes the Manchin-backed permitting provisions, which have drawn widespread opposition and street protests from climate advocates, Indigenous groups, and other frontline community leaders.

It's not clear, though, how many Democrats in the House or Senate would be willing to join Sanders and Khanna in voting against the government funding package, which also needs Republican support to pass the upper chamber.

"Attempting to include this Dirty Deal in the continuing resolution is an underhanded and undemocratic attempt to circumvent voters."

As The Lever reported Friday, the nearly 100-member CPC "could exercise its power to stop a carbon bomb" if it chose to act as a bloc.

"But so far, the caucus has stopped short of pledging to vote against the pipeline deal at all costs," the outlet noted.

Nevertheless, climate groups have been heartened by the mounting public opposition to the Manchin deal from members of the Democratic caucus.

"Today's letter from House members further confirms what we've been seeing on the streets and in town hall meetings across the country: large and growing public disgust for this egregious fossil fuel permitting deal," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, said Friday. "The cynical manner in which the deal is being pushed, as an attachment to must-pass legislation, represents the worst of Washington politics from Democratic Party leaders who claim to be climate champions."

Ebony Twiller Martin, co-executive director of Greenpeace USA, warned that "Manchin and Schumer's Dirty Deal would allow the oil and gas industry which is responsible for over 1 in 5 premature deaths to fast track projects that could contaminate more air, water, and land—especially in Alaska, Appalachia, West Texas, New Mexico, and the Gulf Coast."

"Attempting to include this Dirty Deal in the continuing resolution is an underhanded and undemocratic attempt to circumvent voters and hold hostage any elected official who dares oppose this deal," Martin added. "Congress should pass a continuing resolution free of this Dirty Deal."