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So Is the IRA in Danger, or What?

President Biden’s climate law gets a political stress test.

President Biden and Kevin McCarthy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For the first time since it passed last summer, the Inflation Reduction Act — President Biden’s flagship climate law — is facing a threat of repeal.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has proposed essentially rolling back the law in their opening bid on negotiations with the White House to extend the government's borrowing limit and prevent a calamitous default. The GOP's proposal, called the Limit, Grow, and Save Act, would raise the debt ceiling for a year while slashing trillions in federal spending over the next decade.

While the Republican bill proposes deep cuts across the board, it takes a cleaver to Biden’s climate policy. Folding in the Lower Energy Costs Act, the first bill that the new GOP majority put on the floor, the act would repeal more than two dozen of the IRA’s clean-energy tax credits, including subsidies for renewables and electric vehicles. It would also defund programs meant to open new factories in the United States and gut climate-friendly programs popular with Republicans, such as generous subsidies for nuclear energy and hydrogen production.

Now, let’s get this out of the way: Neither the bill nor the negotiations around it are likely to repeal the IRA. Yet for the next few days or weeks, the IRA will likely appear to be in danger as nobody will quite say it’s safe out loud.

The Republican bill’s chief importance is as a piece of political posturing: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy hopes to demonstrate that he has 218 votes to raise the debt ceiling and pass a budget, any budget, through his disorganized and dramatic caucus. Then he can open more serious negotiations with President Biden and Senate leaders about the debt ceiling and the year’s budget.

But to get there, he’ll have to keep the GOP’s right flank on his side first. McCarthy and House Republican leadership didn’t even want to include the IRA repeal in the Limit, Save, and Grow Act, but included it because the far-right House Freedom Caucus demanded it. That means House leadership must look completely serious about its intent to repeal.

At the same time, climate advocates must now mobilize around the IRA to demonstrate its importance to the public and prevent the Biden administration from sacrificing it in negotiations.

More broadly, though, this moment is a test for a few competing hypotheses about whether the IRA can survive — and about the future of climate policy in America.

To the set of political scientists, climate activists, and energy experts who championed the law, repealing the IRA would be so damaging to Republicans as to be unthinkable. That’s because Republicans’ constituents are, for now, reaping much of the IRA’s economic rewards. Up to two-thirds of green-energy investment nationwide is happening in GOP congressional districts, according to Politico. The all-important swing state of Georgia leads the country in clean-energy and electric-vehicle investments, forming the heartland of a new, vaguely banana-shaped “Battery Belt” that stretches across the largely Republican Southeast. Even beyond that region, Speaker McCarthy’s California district is one of the top two districts nationwide for utility-scale solar, wind, and battery plants.

This wasn’t an accident. The IRA is a product of the Democratic Party, so it was, yes, meant to do all those old-school Democrat things — encourage unionization, boost wages, and help revitalize the old industrial Midwest. But it was written by Democrats who see the party’s future in the Sunbelt suburbs and who prioritize decarbonization above other political goals. They knew — they couldn’t help but know — that much of the law’s investment would flow to the manufacturing centers of the American South and Southwest, where “Right to Work” laws restrict worker power and corporate-friendly policies reign.

On the other side, a set of critics allege that Republicans’ attack on the IRA doesn’t need to make political sense. Kate Aronoff, a New Republic staff writer who has been guardedly skeptical of the law, argued last week that House Republicans don’t care about the political fallout of killing the IRA because they’re protected from virtually any type of political fallout at all, thanks to gerrymandering, their deep-pocketed corporate donors, and a sharply conservative Supreme Court. In that view, the attempts to secure the IRA by appealing to Republicans’ constituents is futile: The party will simply do what it wants.

At stake here is a deep but important disagreement about the IRA. The flagship law aims to cleave fossil-fuel interests from the rest of the corporate bolus: to make it so attractive for banks, carmakers, electric utilities, steelmakers, manufacturers, and everyone else to decarbonize that they had no choice but to do so.Can that happen? Will that happen? This is the question on which the IRA’s advocates and its climate-friendly critics disagree. It is also is the question on which the fate of the IRA — and American climate policy — turns.

In her piece, Aronoff notes that fossil-fuel companies donated 13 times more to politicians in 2018 than renewable companies did. I found that to be oddly encouraging: If money alone is the issue, then the fossil-fuel industry’s alleged grip on the GOP could loosen over time. (The gap is already narrowing: Oil and gas-affiliated groups gave about six times more than renewables groups did in the most recent election cycle.)

The far more dangerous possibility for the IRA is that Republicans cannot be won over with money or argument. The party may just vibe with fossil fuels. Lawmakers and officials might feel an ideological affinity for oil and gas that goes deeper than those fuels’ economic or security benefits. During President Donald Trump’s term, he sometimes seemed to speak about fossil fuels not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. This sometimes verged on trolling, but that was the point too: for Trump, at least, that it triggered liberals only underscored its correctitude. If that view were to break out into the party at large, it would spell an end to any kind of bipartisan shift on climate policy.

Which is all to say: Republicans probably won’t repeal the IRA this week.

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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