“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.”