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The Manchin pressure campaign: CEOs, labor bosses and Bill Gates

When Joe Manchin balked at the clean energy incentives in Democrats’ expansive spending bill two weeks ago, the corporate C-suites and union boardrooms jumped into action.

With hundreds of billions of dollars of incentives for manufacturing, electric vehicles, nuclear power and carbon capturing technology hanging in the balance, executives from some of the nation’s biggest companies and labor unions made their case to the Democratic West Virginia senator: The next generation of clean tech needed Washington’s backing to take off.

Clean energy manufacturing companies with plans to set up shop in Manchin’s state helped orchestrate the 13-day effort to change his mind, more than 20 people involved in the effort told POLITICO — eventually helping to get his backing for the $369 billion in incentives in the newly dubbed Inflation Reduction Act, H.R. 5376 (117). That push — which two of the people said included a call from Bill Gates, whose venture capital firm has backed a West Virginia-based battery start-up — was taking place alongside a campaign by other senators along with economist and inflation hawk Larry Summers to convince Manchin of the merits of the bill.

“It was across the board,” said National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara, who according to other participants was central in organizing the campaign to persuade Manchin to restart talks. “He heard from a wide range.”

The people involved who spoke with POLITICO described an effort with multiple entry points. They said Manchin’s staff was eager to set up meetings and kept conversations going to assuage their boss’ concerns about inflation, supply chains and energy.

“I am absolutely aware that many, many folks called Manchin, and many corporate leaders wanted to get this done,” said one environmental group leader involved in the outreach, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive dynamics given that the legislation has not yet passed.

Manchin told reporters on a Thursday call that he “never walked away” from talks on July 14, the day when news emerged that he would not support the climate measures. He said he and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly thereafter were “trying to see if there was a different approach we could take. And we did that.”

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sens. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Chris Coons of Delaware and Tina Smith of Minnesota continued engaging with Manchin and his staff behind the scenes, even as more vocal proponents of climate action in the Senate urged the caucus and President Joe Biden to move on with the narrower bill that focused on health care subsidies and cutting prescription drug costs.

Hickenlooper compared the persuasion campaign to the anticipation of a holiday present.

“You hope and you hope and you hope and yet in the back of your mind, you know, ‘I’m probably not going to get it.’ I mean, it’s just too much,” he said. “And then you get it.”

Power generation companies that had multiple meetings with Manchin over the last 18 months pressed for a deal as well, with Duke Energy and Constellation Energy making the case for the clean energy package in the days after Manchin appeared to walk away from the energy and climate measures.

A senior executive with a clean power company said his firm communicated with Manchin, Schumer and Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in the past two weeks “softly reminding them” that “tens of billions of dollars in investment are at stake here.”

“We never saw this as dead,” the executive said. “We always held out hope. One thing about Manchin is if you look at what he says, he tells you exactly what he’s thinking. That shaped our attitude looking at what’s next. Our approach was ‘let’s do everything in our power to make sure they have as much encouragement as possible.'”

Off the Hill, O’Mara was busy in the intervening days rounding up conservative economists to address Manchin’s concerns that the spending package would fuel more inflation.

Ultimately, Summers, the former Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, made the case that the climate package would not stoke inflation as Manchin had feared. Economists from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and deficit reduction advocate Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan think tank Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, also briefed Manchin during that period, according to people familiar with the meetings. MacGuineas did not confirm or deny the meeting.

“But I will say this is a tremendous turnaround of a bill that was originally a fiscally-reckless budget-buster and now would fight inflation, help avoid or minimize a recession, and achieve a number of policy objectives,” she said in an email to POLITICO. “I can’t think of the last time we saw a turnaround like this in policymaking.”

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, said several West Virginia companies pushed Manchin to back the credits as well — even suggesting failure to pass the bill imperiled their plans to invest in new operations.

“There were folks who I can’t talk about who are directly involved in potentially developing clean energy manufacturing in the state of West Virginia where site visits had happened where all they needed was a set of investments,” Walsh said. “And that communication happened as well.”

A senior executive with a utility operating in Appalachia said that his company communicated with Manchin how aspects of the bill such as tax credits to build clean energy manufacturing plants at former coal sites and incentives for developing small nuclear reactors and hydrogen would help West Virginia’s economy.

“We know coal plants are ultimately going to close,” the executive said. “What is going to replace them? What are the jobs? What are we transitioning to? In this case, we are going to explore hydrogen, new nuclear and get manufacturing in the state.”

Nucor Corp., the largest U.S. steelmaker, which is building a new plant in West Virginia, also reached out to Manchin’s staff — as did the Carbon Capture Coalition, a cross-sector group that includes labor unions, oil companies and manufacturers, according to a person familiar with the contacts.

Nucor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Form Energy, a battery storage startup backed by Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and which has plans for a West Virginia manufacturing hub, walked Manchin’s staff through its growth trajectories with and without the proposed suite of legislative incentives, a person directly familiar with the interaction said.

That person said Form Energy officials showed the differences on a graph. Its investors — including Gates — also called to assuage Manchin’s concerns over disbursing the tax credits to companies through a direct pay system rather than using tax equity markets. Manchin had balked at the direct payments but eventually accepted them in limited form in the bill.

“It wasn’t a quid pro quo kind of thing,” the person said, adding that Manchin’s staff wanted to “answer nagging questions to get him to yes.”

Gates, through Breakthrough Energy Ventures, did not respond to a request for comment.

And labor unions also pressed Manchin. The United Mine Workers of America engaged throughout the 13-day period with Manchin’s staff, though largely over another issue both Manchin and the union had fought for years to secure: a tax on coal companies to pay into a trust fund for miners suffering from black lung disease.

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said Manchin’s staff “were all for it.” Yet, it was still a surprise to see that tax fully and permanently restored in the bill because “nobody told me or anybody else that, yes, this is going to be in there,” he said.

Local advocates for pushing West Virginia into new forms of energy also made a late push.

Brandon Dennison, the CEO of the economic development organization Coalfield Development, pointed to companies like Solar Holler, a West Virginia-based solar installer whose employees are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers labor union.

Solar Holler CEO Dan Conant told POLITICO he’d spoken often with Manchin, explaining his firm would benefit from the direct pay clean energy incentives because, as a nonprofit, it lacks the tax liability to obtain financing through tax equity markets. Conant spoke with Manchin’s staff after the bill text dropped late Wednesday and was pleased some of those provisions were included.

Dennison said that when he talked to Manchin’s staff in the past two weeks, he made it clear that passing clean energy incentives was about giving West Virginia “a chance to stay an energy state.”

“If we want to benefit from the investments and the jobs that are going to come with that transition, we need to be part of the proactive solutions and policies rather than constantly playing on defense,” Dennison said. “That’s the case I tried to make.”

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