When it became clear in January that President Biden would be governing with a 50-50 Senate, where any one lawmaker had the power to sink any given measure, Sen. Joe Manchin III became a central player in Washington policymaking.
Manchin (D-W.Va.) had always shown a knack for putting himself in the middle of the action during his decade serving on Capitol Hill — often by playing contrarian in an increasingly liberal caucus. But he has also shown a constant willingness to talk and hash out a deal, which led Democrats to believe that, in the end, Manchin would be on their side.
That assumption was blown to smithereens Sunday morning, when Manchin went on “Fox News Sunday” and declared that he was no longer interested in continuing negotiations on Build Back Better, the Biden-backed domestic policy mega-bill that includes cash benefits for parents, health-care subsidies, support for early-childhood education and climate provisions — plus much more.
“I can’t get there,” he told host Bret Baier.
That statement was the political equivalent of a nuclear strike on Biden’s agenda, and it left Washington Democrats — and millions of Americans who have been waiting for action on these issues — wondering what happened, why it came to this and what comes next.
What exactly did Manchin say?
He left things open to interpretation, to a point. “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation — I just can’t,” he told Baier, later adding: “This is a no on this legislation. I have tried everything I know to do.”
The fact that Manchin referred to “this” legislation prompted some bill supporters to simply conclude that he opposes the House-written bill, which would be no surprise to anyone. But Manchin clearly intended the interview to be an emphatic rejection of the current negotiations, an intention that he reinforced in a subsequent written statement and in an interview Monday morning with West Virginia’s MetroNews radio.
Yet he didn’t close the door to a future bill entirely. We’ll return to that later.
Why did it take Manchin so long to say it?
He had said a lot of this before. As far back as July, he had informed Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that he was nowhere near supporting the $3.5 trillion bill other Democrats were planning. In a memo that did not become public for three more months, Manchin laid out a host of other policy concerns, including a desire to target benefits to those most in needy and doubts about some climate provisions.
Manchin had amped up his warnings in recent months, especially as rising inflation started to take hold and the national debt continued to increase. In a Nov. 1 statement, he decried “shell games and budget gimmicks” — a reference to Democrats’ decision to phase out new programs rather than fund them permanently, to hold down the cost of the legislation.
The Fox News kibosh came three days after Biden issued a statement singling out Manchin as the obstacle to progress. Manchin was not happy about that. He made his mind up only in the day or two before going on Fox. At that point, The Washington Post reported, he concluded that he had exhausted all negotiating options with the White House.
In his statement Sunday, Manchin put fiscal concerns at the center of his objections, accusing Build Back Better backers of trying “to camouflage the real cost of the intent behind this bill.”
How did all of these different programs get smushed together, anyway?
The Build Back Better bill has been dictated by a combination of tight congressional margins and the Senate filibuster, which can give a minority of 41 senators veto power over most legislation. But there is one big exception to that rule, called budget reconciliation, which gives the majority party the ability to muscle legislation through by a simple majority.
Reconciliation, however, is a time-consuming, unwieldy process with strict rules, which has typically meant packaging partisan initiatives into one must-pass mega-bill. Many Democrats see Build Back Better as the only real vehicle for policies they have spent years promoting, and the calculation by party leaders was that combining them would make such a bill too big to fail.
How did Democrats take it?
Not great! Liberal Democrats such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both of New York, directed their fury not only at Manchin but at party leaders such as Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who allowed a bipartisan infrastructure bill Manchin backed to pass into law while leaving the rest of the agenda behind.
The White House, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically sharp in responding to Manchin, accusing him of reneging on private assurances he had given Biden, while Schumer vowed Monday to bring the Build Back Better legislation to a vote to force Manchin’s hand.
But some Democrats — mindful that any action on social programs and climate depends on persuading Manchin — adopted a more measured tone. “We owe it to future generations to figure out what can pass, and pass it,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a statement, adding, “Despair is not an option.”
Is this really the end of Build Back Better?
It’s clearly the end of Build Back Better as a legislative bricolage stuffed with dozens of various programs that address everything from education to health care to child poverty to climate change to the decline of local media. But Manchin, in his radio interview Monday, said he could still support a bill that had at its core a reversal of the 2017 Republican tax cuts. He has also expressed strong support for universal pre-K, expanded health care under the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug prices and some climate provisions.
Some Democrats are indicating that they are ready to trim their sails. One powerful Democrat, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (Ore.), floated a package Sunday focused only on the child tax credit, prescription drugs and climate, for instance. And Pelosi said at a San Francisco event Monday that she would not abandon talks: “We cannot walk away from this commitment.”
But whatever comes out of this, it will be done on Manchin’s terms and on his timeline. On Monday, he said he expected any proposals to move through Senate committees, a process that could take months.
Why hasn’t Biden just given Manchin what he wants?
The bill has consistently shrunk for months now, from the $6 trillion favored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to the $3.5 trillion level that senators advanced in July to the $1.85 trillion bill the House passed last month. Despite the haircut, Democrats have avoided hard decisions by simply scaling back time horizons and funding levels rather than excising whole programs from the bill.
What Manchin wants in terms of permanency would require making those hard decisions — cutting major pieces that disappoint virtually every other Democrat, as well as the unions, advocacy groups and other interests that have counted on attaching their priorities to this bill.
Manchin’s views on the child tax credit will be particularly hard for other Democrats to swallow. Many of them, such as Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.) have touted the revolutionary decision, embedded in the American Rescue Plan passed in March, to convert the credit into a universal monthly cash benefit as a major advance for the nation on par with Medicare and Social Security.
That program has now expired, and Manchin has shown no interest in restoring it, preferring to revert to the previous structure in which parents receive the credit when they file their taxes each year. Giving up on an extension at Manchin’s behest will be hard — perhaps impossible — for the other 270 congressional Democrats to swallow.
What is Manchin’s motivation here?
Most decisions in congressional politics boil down to a lawmaker’s next election. But Manchin, whose term runs through 2024, has not made any announcement on his political future. At 74, he’s older than many people realize.
Manchin would also have to run on the same ticket as the presidential candidates, something he last did in 2012, when President Barack Obama lost West Virginia by 26 points. Biden lost the state last year by nearly 40 points, and Manchin could just opt to retire.
Some critics have seized on Manchin’s business interests in the coal industry to question his willingness to back any sort of climate legislation, and he has already vetoed one program that would have phased out coal-fired power plants. But he has also backed many of the other climate provisions in the bill.
The best indicator of Manchin’s next move has tended to be to simply take him at his word: He is a moderate Democrat representing a deeply conservative state, and he votes accordingly.
Speaking to radio host Hoppy Kercheval on Monday, Manchin said he warned Democratic leaders: “I said, don’t you think we ought to take another approach? This is a 50-50 Senate. You all are approaching legislation as if you had 55 or 60 senators that are Democrats and you can do whatever you want. Well, you know what, we’re all a little bit diverse.”