Momentum is building in Congress over an effort to re-instate debilitating solar tariffs on US imports of panels from Southeast Asia, raising alarm from renewable developers. 

The House Ways and Means committee voted Wednesday, with Democratic support, to advance to the floor a bill that would undo a two-year Biden administration pause on duties as high as 254% that threatened to paralyze the US solar industry — and place companies on the hook for retroactive duties estimated to be more than $1 billion.

The committee’s 26-13 vote clears the way for consideration by the full House — possibly as soon as next week. Representative Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, joined Republicans in voting for the measure. Democratic co-sponsors, Representatives Bill Pascrell of New Jersey and Dan Kildee of Michigan, were not present at the vote.

“Our trade laws, enacted by Congress, are meant to protect American manufacturers and American workers from the unfair trade practices,” Kildee said in a statement prior to the vote. “By suspending tariffs on those who violate our trade laws, we are undermining our own American manufacturers and workers.”

The Senate could follow suit in the weeks ahead where just a majority is needed to pass the so-called Congressional Review Act measure that allows Congress to repeal rules within 60 legislative days of enactment. 

President Joe Biden is expected to veto the measure if Congress were to send it to his desk. But Wednesday’s outcome is seen as evidence of Democratic support — potentially enough to overcome a presidential override. That step requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate — normally a high hurdle even when the chambers aren’t so closely divided. However, increasing anti-China sentiment on Capitol Hill is seen raising the risk.

Renewable power and manufacturing advocates have been furiously lobbying lawmakers. The Coalition for a Prosperous America, a domestic manufacturing advocacy group that supports the effort, warned Congress that it would include the floor vote on the measure in its legislative scorecard — ratings that can help guide decisions at the ballot box.

Even if it doesn’t pass, the resolution casts a glaring spotlight on the US solar industry’s reliance on cheap imported solar panels. The four nations subject to the tariffs supply roughly 80% of US panels. And it could force Democrats to take a vote that makes them appear soft on China, which has the potential to provide fodder for bruising campaign ads in next year’s election cycle.

“This misguided resolution would stall America’s clean energy progress and put thousands of construction jobs at risk,” said George Hershman, chief executive officer of solar project building SOLV Energy LLC.  “Ending the two-year reprieve would effectively halt our momentum and undercut American growth in this industry.”

At issue is a two-year suspension of new duties on solar panels from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam scheduled to end in June 2024, which was designed to blunt the immediate economic pain from a Commerce Department trade investigation. The agency in December found that some Chinese solar manufacturers were evading decade-old tariffs by assembling solar gear in these four Southeast Asian nations.

Supporters of the move said it provided a critical transition period to sustain the development of US renewable projects while domestic solar manufacturing supply chains are established. But opponents of the pause, including Democratic Senators Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, said the suspension gives a free pass to China to keep illegally evading tariffs.

“This circumvention comes at the expense of American workers and industry,” the pair wrote in a letter last month to Biden. “US trade laws are designed to protect our domestic market from unfair trade practices and, now that Department of Commerce has established preliminary evidence of circumvention, we urge their strong enforcement.”