How the GOP Outmaneuvered Joe Manchin on Contentious Bill

Earlier this summer, it seemed the fate of President Joe Biden's domestic policy agenda fell squarely on West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin's shoulders.

A critical swing vote in the Senate, Manchin—an already reluctant supporter of his party's infrastructure spending plan—wanted concessions benefitting his fossil fuel-reliant state, including a substantial rollback of permitting requirements for energy projects and the fast-tracking of the Mountain Valley Pipeline between his state and neighboring Virginia that had long been stalled in the bureaucracy.

Manchin got his concessions, and a tentative deal was struck. However, last week, House Democrats appeared to revolt against party leadership's agreement with Manchin, saying they would refuse to ratify a deal over concerns the regulatory changes could have adverse effects on the environment. If a deal stalls, it could lead to a government shutdown.

The GOP has now indicated it is ready to move on without Manchin. Late Monday night, West Virginia's Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito introduced legislation to enact a version of the alleged permitting reform agreement, drawing the support of 38 Republican members including Wyoming Senator John Barrasso—the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Joe Manchin
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, speaks to reporters in the Senate subway during a vote in the U.S. Capitol on September 8 in Washington, D.C. Senators are working toward an agreement on a short-term spending bill to fund the government and avoid a potential shutdown at the end of the month. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

"Since our calls for action and offers to see legislative text from the permitting 'deal' remain unheeded, Republicans are introducing this legislation today to deliver solutions to the roadblocks, delays, and postponements of key infrastructure projects across the country," Capito said in a statement Monday afternoon.

While a shot across Democrats' bow, it also puts Manchin, who has often thrown his weight around within the caucus to earn concessions for his state, in a challenging position. Capito introduced similar language as an amendment to Biden's Inflation Reduction Act during debate on a reconciliation bill late last month, where it failed by a single vote—Manchin's.

Democratic leadership has yet to release text of a compromise amid party infighting over the rollback of public comment provisions in the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which environmental groups and Democrats argue are critical in ensuring the responsible development of various energy extraction projects around the country. However, the compromise was key to earning Manchin's support, with the moderate West Virginia senator long saying he would not support a deal that failed to include those concessions.

Capito's legislation, however, would likely go beyond any compromise Democrats could strike, putting the ball in Manchin's court. In addition to codifying since-reversed changes to NEPA enacted as an executive order by former President Donald Trump, the legislation would also ease numerous bureaucratic hurdles for the industry by affirming the definition of "navigable waters" under the Clean Water Act, limiting state-level actions to "unreasonably" interfere with infrastructure development projects, and hastening the review periods for various infrastructure projects, among other provisions.

But it would also allow states to extract minerals on any federal lands within their borders—overruling a sweeping review of federal drilling policy by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland that galvanized conservative leaders in mineral-rich western states like Nevada, Utah and Wyoming and reduced the level of federal land available for drilling to all-time lows.

"This so-called 'permitting reform' bill is nothing more than a shameless attempt to make it easier for fossil fuel companies to steamroll communities and fast-track their polluting projects," Mahyar Sorour, deputy legislative director for the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "Efforts to weaken NEPA and limit the public's ability to weigh in on pipelines and other infrastructure that would affect them would be devastating for our communities, especially in places like Appalachia and the Gulf South that have already been treated as fossil fuel sacrifice zones for far too long. The Sierra Club will continue to fight back against any proposed legislation that would rubber-stamp the disastrous Mountain Valley Pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, indicated Tuesday he would not accept a government shutdown or House Democratic demands to walk away from the deal, saying he would add Manchin's demands to the final bill.

"And it will pass," Schumer told reporters Tuesday.