Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., speaks at a student loan forgiveness rally on Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th street near the White House on April 27, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Bay Area Rep. Ro Khanna is taking a victory lap.
When West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin scuttled negotiations on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better spending plan at the end of last year, Khanna, a key member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and former co-chair of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, remained engaged in talks with Manchin and urged Democrats to “give [Manchin] the pen” in drafting the legislation.
Some voices on the left criticized Khanna for keeping talks open with Manchin, arguing that doing so is a dead end and that Manchin is not a good-faith actor. Two weeks ago, however, Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced agreement on a $700 billion spending plan dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act.” The bill contains traces of Build Back Better in its climate and health care provisions, and the White House has called the legislation the “largest investment ever in combatting the existential crisis of climate change.”
Khanna, a likely presidential candidate once Biden is no longer in the picture, spoke to SFGATE on Monday about the Inflation Reduction Act, his recent defense of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highly scrutinized trip to Taiwan, and more. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
SFGATE: You’ve been talking to Manchin for months on climate, but a deal was far from certain. Can you pinpoint one moment in this process you’d call a turning point where it became clear there was going to be a deal?
Khanna: I’ve been talking to him for almost a year. He called me on New Year’s Day and said he was still committed to funding for innovation in clean technology, he just didn’t like some of the other provisions in Build Back Better. I always felt it could happen because he always signaled he was open to going big on climate.
I was part of his bipartisan talks with Republican senators, and once those fell apart I was concerned. It was when I learned he was talking to Chuck Schumer I thought it’d get done. Manchin called me during those talks and said he and Schumer were fighting like brothers, but something would get done. I think it really meant something to Manchin when I told him, “If you put up something big on climate, House progressives will get behind it.”
SFGATE: So the turning point was once you learned Manchin was quietly talking to Schumer? It wasn’t Mitch McConnell’s threat on the “CHIPS” bill as some people have speculated?
Khanna: Yes, that’s when it became clear to me. Manchin and Schumer have been talking for a couple months, I can’t remember the specific date. I’ll say that when Chuck Schumer puts his mind to something, it usually gets done. He’s one of the most underrated figures in American politics.
SFGATE: I think a lot of people have seen Build Back Better go through so many iterations they’ve lost track of what’s in it. Explain briefly, for someone who is not a policy wonk and just now tuning in, the one or two items you think are the most groundbreaking, and then one to two items that are not in the bill you think are the highest priority for you going forward.
Khanna: Climate and climate. And by that I mean the biggest thing is $369 billion in tax credits for clean energy. So tax credits for solar, wind, nuclear that will last over 10 years. We have provisions to encourage domestic manufacturing, where firms get a bonus for making things in the U.S. We’re nowhere near what China is doing in manufacturing, they make 70% of world’s solar panels.
What we still need is new steel plants in factory towns, we need more investment in reinvigorating factories and boosting industry in small towns across America that have been deindustrialized. But this bill is absolutely to be celebrated; it’s the boldest climate investment in history, but it’s best seen as a down payment. It’s maybe 20% of what we need to do. 
SFGATE: What are the most important things for people in California, the Bay Area, or your Silicon Valley district to know about the bill?
Khanna: The clean energy tax credit by far. If you produce things that are zero-emission, you get a massive tax credit of 30%. That will continue for many years until emissions are 75% below 2021 levels. That means that for this decade, people can be confident that if they’re producing solar, wind, electrical vehicles, any new technology with zero emissions, you get the tax credit.
There’s also allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drugs prices, which is something we as Democrats campaign on all the time. That’s finally done and a really big deal.
SFGATE: Let’s switch gears and talk a bit about your defense of Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip. There was a Reuters report that China is now going to conduct regular drills east of the Taiwan Strait median line because of the visit. I understand the argument that the Chinese Communist Party shouldn’t get to determine which trips our lawmakers can and cannot take, but what exactly does the U.S. gain from this particular visit?
Khanna: I want peace, but the most important aspect of our relationship with China is the need to rebalance production. If you have trade imbalances, that’s going to lead to friction. Rebalancing production will help bring world stability.
I don’t think the speaker going to Taiwan — as long as she’s saying we believe in the One China policy — should be seen as trying to provoke a new Cold War with China. I think we have to recognize the One China policy, but that has to be on two fundamental fronts: one is an emphasis on the need to rebalance production, the other is an understanding that we will speak out on human rights abuses.
SFGATE: How does Pelosi visiting Taiwan help with the rebalancing of production?
Khanna: It highlights to the American public that we’re too reliant on semiconductors from Asia. The CHIPS Act I helped pass is going to create 12 production facilities in the U.S., but China is building 30, and Taiwan is building 19. One of purposes of the Taiwan visit is a stark reminder that we need resiliency and independence. But it’s important to affirm the One China policy and make clear we don’t want to have military escalation in the area.
SFGATE: Let’s talk 2024. You said in July you won’t challenge Biden if he runs because you think he’s the best bet for beating Donald Trump, whom you think would “destroy” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a 2024 primary. There have been two polls from the last couple weeks showing Trump around 45% and DeSantis around 35%. I’m sure you remember the 2016 Democratic primary when Hillary Clinton was leading Bernie Sanders by even more than that much closer to the primaries and the race dramatically tightened once campaigning actually began. Why won’t that happen here?
Khanna: I’ll tell you why: Bernie had a working class base. If you look under the hood at these polls, DeSantis has college-educated voters while Trump has folks without a college degree. That second group is the heart and soul of the Republican base. As a candidate, I think having the working class is important.
DeSantis is basically winning the Never Trump John Kasich coalition by consolidating it. I would rather the country not have to go through another Trump candidacy, but I have not seen someone who is able to puncture his working class base in the GOP. I wish someone would, but I have yet to see it.
SFGATE: Is Biden in better shape now than he was a month ago? You have the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS bill, gas prices coming down, all of that in the last few weeks.
Khanna: I think so. I got criticized when I said I’d be for Biden in 2024 because I see Trump as an existential threat to the country. I want to make sure we win, and if Biden is running, I’ll support him.
SFGATE: Have you seen the Dark Brandon memes?
Khanna: The what?
SFGATE: Dark Brandon memes, they’re all over social media.
Khanna: I’ve seen Brandon memes but not Dark Brandon. What’s that?
SFGATE: You kind of need to see it with your own eyes. I’ll let you go on Twitter to discover it on your own.
Eric Ting is SFGATE’s politics editor. He is an East Bay native who has a Master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University. Eric did his undergrad at Pomona College, where he majored in politics and minored in economics. Email: eric.ting@sfgate.com

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