For the third time in just over a month, President Joe Biden will likely be forced to exercise his veto power to save a piece of his embattled environmental agenda. Some analysts say the moment may mark a turning point in Biden’s presidency as he takes a more aggressive position to push his priorities past a divided Congress while seeking a second term.
The Senate voted on Thursday to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule that aims to cut pollution from heavy-duty trucks. The legislation is now expected to head to the Republican-held House of Representatives, where it’s expected to pass.
Proponents of the EPA rule, which updated the nation’s clean air standards for the first time in two decades and targets harmful emissions of nitrogen oxides, say it will prevent thousands of premature deaths and cases of childhood asthma every year—especially in neighborhoods historically plagued by industrial pollution. Republicans say the rule is overly burdensome for the trucking industry and will likely exacerbate inflation.
Biden has said he’ll veto the GOP-led measure, which narrowly passed the Senate with support from the Democrats’ most conservative member, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. It’s a surprising loss for the president in a chamber of Congress where Democrats still hold a thin majority. Biden has already vetoed two other bills passed by Congress over the past month, both related to his climate and environmental agenda.
Last month, congressional Republicans, joined by a handful of conservative-leaning Democrats, voted to block a Biden administration rule that sought to bolster environmental protections under the Clean Water Act. And on Feb. 28, Congress voted along similar margins to repeal a Department of Labor rule that allows retirement fund managers to consider environmental factors like climate change in their investment choices. Biden vetoed both of those repeals, marking the first two times he’s used the executive power during his presidency.
While Congress holds the power to create legislation, including the laws that established federal agencies, the office of the president has the authority to direct how those agencies implement their duties and what rules they pass. Republican lawmakers, however, have sought to stymie that authority through the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to block recently enacted federal agency regulations with a simple majority vote.
“It’s this kind of showdown between the executive authority and … Congress,” Jillian Blanchard, director of the climate change program for Lawyers for Good Government, told me in an interview. “This is going to play out again and again, I think, in terms of what it is that executive agencies have the authority to do, and the ways in which Congress tries to use the Congressional Review Act to limit that authority.”
In fact, Biden may be forced into a political corner several more times this year as his administration continues to pass ambitious environmental regulations at a quickfire pace—a sign that the president may have shifted away from his earlier tactic of bargaining for middleground with Republicans and has now taken an offensive stance.
Earlier in April, the Biden administration passed sweeping new vehicle emissions standards that the White House says will ensure two-thirds of passenger cars sold in the United States will be all-electric by the end of the decade. Republicans, along with Manchin, are already plotting their challenge to that rule. And on Wednesday, House Republicans managed to pass a debt ceiling bill that would raise the nation’s borrowing limit, but repeal a slew of clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ flagship climate law.
While Biden has the power to veto almost any bill that gets sent to his desk, those fights could be complicated by an absentee senator from California, putting pressure on the president to return to the negotiating table as he runs for reelection and faces a potential government default.
Thursday’s repeal of Biden’s clean truck rule passed the Senate by the narrowest of margins, 49-50, despite Democrats holding a majority of 51 seats in that chamber. Because of that makeup, some Democrats are now blaming California Sen. Dianne Feinstein for Thursday’s outcome and urging the 89-year-old senator to retire early. Feinstein has been absent from Congress for two months battling a case of shingles, meaning Democrats had one less vote in the Senate to thwart the passage of Thursday’s bill. Democrats have also blamed Feinstein’s absence for delaying efforts to advance Biden’s judicial nominees.
“Because Senator Feinstein was absent, the Senate overturned a Biden rule that would cut pollution from heavy duty trucks (that) causes harm to people’s lungs. We are putting decorum over democracy and our values. It’s time for Senator Feinstein to step down gracefully,” U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, tweeted Thursday.
The calls for Feinstein to resign have sparked debates over ageism and sexism in the Democratic party. But staffers for Feinstein have publicly expressed fears that the California senator, whose three decades in office have earned her a reputation as a progressive power broker, has rapidly lost her mental capacity and is unable to carry out her congressional duties.
Whatever the case may be, the situation puts Biden in a precarious position as he runs for a second term while facing historically low approval ratings. The questions to ask now are how much of Biden’s environmental legacy will be left standing in the end, and will it be enough to convince climate-conscious voters to elect him again?
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