Climate hawks breathe sigh of relief after more than a decade of fighting for climate legislation
Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey still remembers the raw anger he felt after the 2009 climate bill bearing his name failed to advance in a Democrat-controlled Senate.
"I was full of rage that the climate crisis was not going to be addressed," he told CNN of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. "I just resolved that I was going to stay in the fight."
In a 50-50 Senate and more than a decade later, Markey and the rest of his Democratic colleagues voted to pass the Inflation Reduction Act -- by far the largest climate investment in US history. The bill, which still needs to pass in the House, contains more than $370 billion in tax incentives and other funding to supercharge clean energy and cut planet-warming emissions.
After the bill passed the Senate on Sunday afternoon, a visibly emotional Sen. Martin Heinrich said he still couldn't quite believe it.
"I don't know if it's quite caught up with me yet," the New Mexico Democrat told CNN. "We thought we were going to get this done back in 2009, 2010, and obviously it took another 12 years. I think it's going to be transformative."
The bill's passing is not a moment too soon. The urgency to reverse the dangerous trajectory of the climate crisis has never been greater. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hasn't been this high in more than 4 million years, scientists reported in June, and human greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.
Scientists have warned for decades that the climate crisis is fueling extreme heat, intense drought and stronger storms, and the consequences of burning fossil fuels have been felt in every corner of the country.
In the last few weeks, the United States has experienced catastrophic wildfires in the West, a series of deadly flash floods in the Midwest and California and the expansion of the West's worst drought in 12 centuries. The US spent more than $145 billion on extreme weather in 2021 alone.
It was through that lens that this vote was personal for many senators, some of whom told CNN they were voting with their children and grandchildren's futures forefront on their minds.
"This is about their lives and whether they're going to have a planet to grow up on," Tom Carper, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told CNN.
The Delaware Democrat added, "Do they have a future? Do their kids have a future? It doesn't get any bigger than this."
'The planet itself is at stake'
The climate victory was not guaranteed.
Since negotiations began more than a year ago, lawmakers and staffers watched other versions of this bill die in dramatic fashion. The final, slim version was resurrected during recent secret negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- Democrats' key swing vote.
"Every near-death experience felt just as scary as the previous one," said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. "I have never had so many ups and downs with a single piece of legislation. It had an unusual number of twists and turns, but also -- the planet itself is at stake."
As Manchin complained in July about the bill's impact on inflation and energy security, he was also getting an earful from other Democrats. Carper told CNN he approached the West Virginian on the Senate floor with a list of recent climate disasters and extreme weather and urged him to act.
"I would say, 'I need you to help my state,'" Carper recounted. "'My state is the lowest lying state in America; my state's sinking.'"
Carper said he told Manchin that while Democrats were committed to helping West Virginia's coal miners transition to a clean energy economy, Manchin's vote was also needed to help states like Delaware and Louisiana where the coastlines are being swallowed by the ocean.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, Democrats watched as Manchin went from "no" to becoming the face of the bill, defending it in the press.
"Everyone has heard him say if he can explain it, he can vote for it," Schatz said. "He finally arrived at a bill that he's proud of, and then it's like a light switch turns on. He's not dragged kicking and screaming; he's dragging everyone else and he's leading the messaging on this bill."
On Thursday night, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced she would also support the bill, giving the party the 50 votes it needed.
"The impact of this actually finally hit me for the first time" on Thursday, Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota told CNN. "Tears sprang into my eyes; I was so joyful."
Just a few weeks before, Smith said she was "thinking the door was pretty much closed. When I realized there had been an agreement, I literally couldn't believe it."
A big win before midterms
Senate climate hawks told CNN their work isn't done, but which path they take next hinges on the outcome of the midterm elections in November, and whether the party can retain its fragile Congressional majorities.
Most immediately, Democrats will work on an environmental permitting reform bill that Schumer and Manchin agreed to advance this fall as part of their larger deal, lawmakers told CNN. Manchin wanted a two-year maximum timeline on drilling permit reviews and an expedited process for certain major, interstate electricity transmission projects.
But it would also advance a controversial natural pipeline project in Virginia and West Virginia that has long been a priority for Manchin. That measure will need Republican votes to pass a 60-vote threshold, which could complicate things.
"We always knew there were going to be some stinkers," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told CNN of the fossil fuel measures. Still, Whitehouse admitted, "some of it we're going to want," like the provisions to speed up permitting for electrical transmission.
Climate hawks are also planning to put more pressure on the Biden administration to roll out strong regulations and executive actions, and some are considering an effort to resurrect the measures Manchin killed last year, like a clean electricity program that would lead to even larger cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
For now, they are relieved to have finally logged a significant win for the climate.
"I think this bill will show the power of action," Smith said. "I don't think it will be the last thing we do by any means, but it will break the dam of inaction."