Manchin’s announcement caught the White House off guard, following weeks of negotiations between Biden and the West Virginia Democrat and just a day after the Senate adjourned for the holidays, in the hopes of regrouping in the new year. The abrupt nature of the announcement and the White House’s bitter response risk clouding any steps forward for now.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused the West Virginia Democrat of reneging on pledges he made over recent weeks to Biden, including a proposal he made to the president on Tuesday for yet another reconfiguration of the roughly $1.8 trillion legislation that Democrats were expecting to tout in congressional election campaigns next year.
Despite all the negotiations, “I can’t get there,” Manchin said on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “This is a no on this legislation.”
Manchin’s statements “represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate,” Psaki said in a lengthy and sharply worded statement that sought to rebut many of Manchin’s points.
With Republicans universally opposed to the bill Democrats call “Build Back Better,” Manchin was the linchpin for passage in the 50-50 Senate. The White House and many congressional Democrats vowed they wouldn’t give up on their agenda, but it was far from certain that any legislation rewritten to meet Manchin’s criteria would win support from progressive Democrats.
“Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word,” Psaki said.
Manchin was even more emphatic in a statement after the Fox News appearance.
“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” Manchin said. “I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful.”
Progressive Democrats long had been wary of Manchin scuttling the legislation. They accepted the bill being scaled back from the $6 trillion initially proposed to get closer to Manchin’s demands. Biden promised progressives in the House this fall that if they approved a $550 billion infrastructure bill, he would get Manchin on board with at least a $1.75 trillion social safety net bill.
Manchin “has betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement. “He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that. West Virginians, and the country, see clearly who he is.”
If Manchin is open to some version of the bill, Biden, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could try a wholesale rewrite that shrinks it to meet Manchin’s expectations and jettisoning some core components.
The senator has talked of having a hard $1.75 trillion top-line, smaller than the estimated $2.2 trillion investment made in spending and tax credits in the House bill. He also repeated that any benefits should be extended for a full 10 years.
That could open the door to a 10-year child tax credit expansion costing $1.4 trillion with some more minor side spending either on climate action or the social safety net. The senator has spoken approvingly of universal pre-kindergarten in particular, while resisting paid leave from the start.
“At the start of these negotiations many months ago, we called for prioritizing doing a few things well for longer, and we believe that adopting such an approach could open a potential path forward for this legislation,” said Representative Suzan Delbene, the head of the moderate New Dem Coalition in the House.
Such a bill could be a tough sell to progressive Democrats who originally envisioned a $6 trillion catch-all measure roping in climate, child care, elder care, education, housing and paid family leave.
Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden in a statement floated the idea of a package focused on child tax credits and renewable energy incentives along with provisions to lower healthcare and prescription drug costs.
If Manchin is serious about giving up on the effort entirely, then Schumer could explore ways to get 10 Republicans on board with smaller pieces of the initiative.
That would likely be a tough sell to Republicans in an election year, but Schumer would have some tools such as tacking on provisions to a bill needed to avoid a government shutdown after Feb. 18. A slim version of the child tax credit with work requirements could be one proposal of interest to Republicans, perhaps with extension of some of the Trump-era tax cuts.
In this case, Democrats could bring the issues to the voters in 2022 and try to elect enough Democrats to pass their agenda in 2023. That would also be a tough lift, given projection that the House will flip to the Republicans in the 2022 midterms, following along historical trends.
Going this route could entail putting the Build Back Better bill on the Senate floor for a failed vote, to make an issue out of it even if it is doomed.
That move has been backed by Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders and other progressives.
“Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should move forward with the vote and make Manchin follow through on the betrayal of his constituents instead of enjoying the attention on TV,” progressive Representative Rashida Tlaib said in a statement.
In any case, the White House said it is not giving up on its top domestic priority.
“The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year,” Psaki said.