Democrats are at odds over Biden’s tariffs on Chinese solar panels

President Biden’s tariff freeze on Chinese solar panels is dividing Democrats into dueling camps: climate hawks and China hawks.

Climate hawks say domestic solar power would be cut off from a cheap foreign source of supply, which accounts for 80% of solar panels used in US projects, if a bipartisan resolution to reinstate tariffs on Chinese companies that have broken trade rules is passed.

China’s hawks trying to end Mr Biden’s tariff waiver say it’s about supporting domestic production and punishing a foreign adversary.

“It’s just unacceptable,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who broke with Mr. Biden to take the lead on the bipartisan measure. “If the goal is to develop our domestic capabilities, we don’t do it by further undermining our own domestic production.”

He doesn’t buy the argument from other Democrats that restoring tariffs would put solar power at risk.

Mr Kildee’s measure is a privileged resolution, meaning under the Congressional Review Act it must receive votes in both houses within the coming weeks and only requires a simple majority to pass.

It’s the latest episode in which Democrats are forced to choose whether to cross the aisle against Mr. Biden’s regulatory agenda. But other Democrats and the solar industry are warning that tariffs will drive up the cost of solar panels and undermine green policies.

“This would exacerbate the current panel shortage and put a fair number of American electricians and tradesmen out of work in the meantime,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico.

Both sides say their strategy would help domestic production catch up with demand. A recent study by Cornell University engineers concluded that manufacturing all modules in the US would reduce emissions caused by overseas manufacturing by 30%. According to the study, the benefit came from shifting protection away from Chinese coal-fired assets.

Republicans and pro-tariff Democrats like Mr. Kildee say their tough stance on China would deter overseas competitors from actively undercutting domestic suppliers if they try to compete. Additionally, they say the perceived threat to domestic solar companies from tariffs, which are currently being lifted until June 2024, has been exaggerated.

“It’s not that complicated. These are companies that are clearly trying to evade tariffs on Chinese products,” Mr Kildee said. “I also disagree with the premise that we must look the other way to achieve our goals.”

Last year, Mr. Biden declared a two-year solar tariff exemption amid a Commerce Department probe that froze imports and projects and sent the solar industry into a tailspin.

The agency concluded last December that four companies — three Chinese and one Canadian — had evaded tariffs by completing solar cells and modules in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

However, due to Mr. Biden’s waiver, the tariffs that have been in effect since 2012 remain unpaid despite circumventing US trade rules.

The four Southeast Asian countries account for about 80% of US solar panels and key components, raising concerns among domestic industry leaders and most Democrats that reinstating tariffs would weaken the US solar industry.

The Republican-led House of Representatives is expected to pass the measure in the weeks following his April 17 return from spring break. The math in the Democrat-controlled Senate is more complicated.

The resolution is supported only by Republican senators in the upper chamber. Some Senate Democrats who have tough races next year, including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, have previously called on Mr Biden to reintroduce tariffs but have not said they will support the bipartisan resolution against the government.

“We’ve seen decade after decade of American companies pushing for weaker trade deals to go abroad and cost us jobs,” Brown said. “I’m still not sure how we’re going to do it [take next steps]. It’s more complicated because all the manufacturing is already gone.”

Joe Manchin III, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, a re-electoral West Virginia Democrat who recently sided with the Republicans to block other of Mr. Biden’s regulations, told The Times he was also undecided.

“We have to bring all this technology home,” he said. “We really do.”

Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen, whose home state of Nevada has the most solar jobs per capita in the country, has campaigned on her peers against what she calls “job-killing tariffs” that would “decimate our solar industry and destroy our ability to meet demand for cleaner.” Energy.”

Ms Rosen told fellow Democrats in a memo provided to the Times that reinstating the tariffs could now cost 30,000 US solar jobs in an industry employing 250,000 people — 90% of whom are non-manufacturing.

The White House has not commented on whether Mr. Biden would veto the resolution. But it has previously argued that demand-based tariffs are crucial while more domestic supply comes online.

Democrats who support the temporary tariff freeze accuse opponents of wanting to undermine the party’s climate law.

“Opponents of renewable energy progress are finding every procedural tool at their disposal to try to slow the momentum,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii.

Mr Kildee said it was not a double-edged sword.

“I just don’t believe in the argument that we have to sacrifice one principle to pursue another,” he said.

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