Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Manchin’s Fatal “No” To Biden’s Build Back Better Bill

It should not have come as a surprise. Yet it did. Joe Manchin’s simple and direct answer to the same crucial question that reporters have been asking the moderate Democrat senator from West Virginia for the past six months came as a major political shock. It rang out Sunday morning like a shot to the heart of President Biden’s hugely expensive and partisan Build Back Better proposal, as well as the radical progressive agenda he has adopted for his presidency.

In response to a question from veteran Fox News reporter Bret Baier, Manchin was unusually direct in stating that he had made up his mind to withhold his critical 50th Democrat vote from Biden’s bill, dooming it to go down to defeat. Lacking the votes needed to withstand the threat of a Republican filibuster, Democrat party leaders had resorted to the tactic of using the Senate’s arcane reconciliation rules to pass the bill on the basis of Kamala Harris’ vice presidential tie-breaking vote. But in order to first establish the necessary 50-50 Senate tie, the Democrats need Manchin’s vote, which has given him the power to singlehandedly dictate the bill’s fate.

Manchin declared, “I can’t move forward. I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation, I just can’t. I tried everything humanly possible,” he said, referring to his negotiations with President Biden. “I can’t get there. This is a ‘no’ on this legislation. I have tried everything I know to do,” Manchin repeated for emphasis.


“And the President has worked diligently. He’s been wonderful to work with. He knows I’ve had concerns and the problems I’ve had and, you know, the thing that we should all be directing our attention towards the variant, a Covid that we have coming back at us in so many different aspects in different ways, it’s affecting our lives again,” the West Virginia senator said.

Manchin cited as a main reason prompting him to cut off negotiations with the White House the combination of serious challenges now confronting the nation. These include the spike in inflation, the huge increases in the national debt, “geopolitical unrest (meaning the current military threats facing U.S. allies Ukraine and Taiwan),” and the latest wave in the Covid pandemic, due to the rapid spread of the new omicron variant of the virus.

During a period in which the nation was facing so many serious challenges, Manchin argues that it would be dangerous to commit so many of its financial resources to a bill whose passage could be safely put off until after the current national emergency has passed.

“When you have these things coming at you the way they are right now,” Manchin said, “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation.”

Manchin conceded that there were aspects of Biden’s bill that he strongly supports, such as the continuation of expanded child care tax credits. “There’s a lot of good, but that bill is a mammoth piece of legislation,” containing controversial proposals which Manchin said deserve a full debate before being enacted into law.


He also stressed his deep concerns over the inflation that has already “harmed a lot of Americans. Inflation is real. It’s not going away any time soon… What we need to do is get our financial house in order, but be able to pay for what we do and do what we pay for,” Manchin said.

In a statement released shortly after his television appearance, Manchin explained that “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. I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight.”

He also declared, “I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.’ Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation.”

Manchin, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on energy, also expressed his concern that Biden’s Build Back Better bill would try to transition the nation’s economy away from the use of fossil fuels “at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow,” leading to “catastrophic consequences.”

Some Democrats had suggested that Manchin had been bluffing all along, and questioned whether Manchin actually had the guts to carry through with his threats to cast his Senate vote against Biden’s bill. In his Fox News interview, Manchin responded by declaring. “Here’s the thing: When it’s time, just vote. I’ve been saying that. Just vote. If that’s what people need to show where they are, then vote.”


Manchin had originally set a $1.5 trillion ceiling as the maximum cost for any such legislation that he would be willing to support. In his Fox News interview, Manchin was also highly critical of the artificial way that Democrats had tried to reduce the apparent cost of the bill to meet the $1.75 trillion spending cap that Biden ultimately persuaded him to accept. “They’ve tried to make this adjustment [by making] the time to fit the money or the money to fit the time, not [by] changing our approach, not targeting things we should be doing; making sure that people basically that truly need [the government help] are getting it; making sure that we can do things in a much better fashion.”

Another objection that Manchin had to the social welfare proposals in the Build Back Better bill was that they were not means-tested, and would extend their benefits to many middle class and higher income families that do not need them.

Manchin also criticized the use of special reconciliation rules to jam the bill through the Senate with Democrat votes only, rather than following the Senate’s “regular order” rules for drafting and approving legislation. Repeating the same theme courageously sounded by the late John McCain during his last, memorable speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Manchin declared, “We have things that we can do in a bipartisan way, the way the Senate is supposed to work if we’ll just let it happen. Just go through the committees, let’s work it.”

Manchin had been negotiating for months over the ever-changing terms of the Biden bill with senior Democrat party leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, as well as several one-on-one conversations with President Biden himself. Throughout that process, Manchin had been speaking out publicly to explain his main objections to the bill, beginning with its mammoth cost and the size of the tax increases that would be needed to fully pay for it.

The Biden White House did accede to some of his demands. It agreed to cut the proposal’s original $3.5 trillion sticker price roughly in half by eliminating some of the features to which Manchin had specific objections, such as a $150 billion program designed to force the country’s electrical power generation industry to prematurely abandon its use of fossil fuels.

The Biden White House also agreed to completely remove some of the progressive proposals in the original bill, such as free community college tuition, the creation of a new Medicare benefit to cover hearing aids, and paid family leave. However, other expensive measures in the original bill strongly favored by the progressives, such as the extension of an expanded child care tax credit, were allowed to remain, while their projected total cost was artificially reduced by limiting the time for which their funding would be authorized by the bill.

It was a cynical move meant to deceive the American public. Privately, many Democrats admitted that the real cost of these measures would be much higher than their advertised prices, because they expected that future congressional action would make the measures permanent before their temporary funding in the current bill had expired. When Republicans exposed this deception, it undercut much of the support for the bill among independent voters.


By the end of October, just before Biden left Washington to attend an international climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, he and Manchin had agreed on a framework for a reduced version of the Build Back Better bill with a “sticker price” of about $1.75 trillion. However, there was a complicating factor that further delayed a House vote on the bill at that time. In an effort to guarantee that the items on their agenda would become law, the Democrat progressive caucus decided to hold hostage a House vote on another key piece of Biden legislation, the  bipartisan infrastructure bill, until the Senate passed the Build Back Better legislation.

The subsequent wrangling between the moderate and progressive Democrat factions forced the last minute addition of new measures to the Build Back Better bill. The most expensive and controversial of those additions was the lifting of the cap on the SALT itemized tax deductions. It raised the overall cost the bill, which finally passed the House at the end of November, by more than $200 billion, and made it much more controversial, especially for progressives, who condemned it as a tax cut designed to benefit millionaires living in high-tax blue states.

Because the sticker price of the bill which passed the House now exceeded $2 trillion, far beyond the $1.75 trillion spending limit that Biden had convinced Manchin to accept, new negotiations were initiated by the White House in an attempt to once again try to win his crucial 50th Senate vote.


It was those negotiations, conducted in several direct conversations between Manchin and Biden, as well as senior members of the White House staff, which became deadlocked last week. Despite any private doubts he might have had at that point, Biden remained publicly optimistic that Manchin would ultimately support a reworked Senate version of the House-passed bill. Exuding confidence, Biden declared, “I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan.”

It was later reported that in private conversations with his advisors, Biden had by then become much more pessimistic about the prospects for reaching an agreement with Manchin. However, Manchin’s decision to go public with his opposition to the bill on Sunday morning still caught Biden and other Democrat leaders very much by surprise.

Manchin informed them of his decision, through members of his staff, less than an hour prior to his Sunday morning Fox News television interview. The senator also reportedly refused to accept a phone call from a senior White House staff member just minutes before he went on the air.


Manchin’s decision struck the Washington political community like a bombshell. Progressive Democrats who had accepted Biden’s assurances that he would eventually be able to get Manchin’s support for the bill felt that they had been betrayed.

Shortly after Manchin made his announcement on Fox News Sunday, Senator Bernie Sanders told CNN reporter Jake Tapper, “I think [Manchin’s] going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia. I hope that we will bring a strong bill to the floor of the Senate as soon as we can and let Mr. Manchin explain to the people of West Virginia why he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the powerful special interests. If he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”


However, Sanders apparently was ignoring the fact that by casting his Senate vote against the Build Back Better bill, Manchin would, in fact, be carrying out the will of most West Virginia voters, who had, by a 30% margin, chosen Donald Trump rather than Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election.

On the same CNN news interview program, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a leading member of the House progressive faction, said that she had always been skeptical about whether Biden’s Build Back Better bill could pass, because she had feared that Manchin could not be trusted. “He has continued to move the goalposts, he has never negotiated in good faith, and he’s obstructing the president’s agenda.”

Pressley added, “We cannot allow one lone senator from West Virginia to obstruct the president’s agenda, to obstruct the people’s agenda.”


The first White House reaction to Manchin’s statement was also angry and personal. While Biden remained at his home in Delaware throughout the weekend, out of public view, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, made an appearance to publicly accuse the West Virginia senator of going back on his promises to the president and betraying the best interests of the American people.

She declared that Manchin’s announcement was “at odds with his discussions this week with the president, with White House staff, and with his own public utterances. If his comments on Fox [News] and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they 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.

“Maybe Senator Manchin can explain to the millions of children who have been lifted out of poverty, in part due to the Child Tax Credit, why he wants to end a program that is helping achieve this milestone – we cannot,” Psaki said.

In her carefully crafted 712-word statement, Psaki once again tried to rebut Manchin’s objections to the bill, point-by-point. She also said, “On Tuesday of this week (December 14), Senator Manchin came to the White House and submitted – to the president, in person, directly – a written outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the same size and scope as the president’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities. While that framework was missing key priorities, we believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all.”

According to a later report published by The Hill political news website, those talks were still cordial, and resulted in an informal agreement between Biden and Manchin to suspend their negotiations until after the start of 2022, setting a new working deadline of March or April to reach an agreement. The Washington Post reported that Manchin’s proposed version of the legislation would reduce its cost to once again meet the $1.75 trillion spending cap that he had earlier agreed to. It would also include full funding for several of the original provisions in Biden’s bill, including federal funds for anti-climate change initiatives, universal free pre-kindergarten education, and money to expand access to health care. But to stay under the spending cap, Manchin’s proposal omitted completely any funding for the original bill’s most expensive proposal, the extension of the expanded version of the child tax credit.

When reporters confronted Manchin with that report, he angrily responded that while he was in favor of the expanded child tax credit, he felt strongly, because of its expense and importance, that it should be debated and voted upon separately from the rest of Biden’s bill.

Even after Manchin’s talks with the White House were suspended last week, some Democrat senators, including Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, were still seen huddling with Manchin on the Senate floor, trying to convince him to support key measures of Biden’s bill, but it was all to no avail.


Apparently, the turning point that resulted in Manchin’s stunning Sunday announcement took place the previous Thursday, when the White House issued a statement saying that because of Manchin’s continued resistance, the bill’s passage would miss its most recent end-of-the-year deadline. According to a report in Politico, that statement had angered Manchin, because it mentioned him by name as the cause for the bill’s delay. Manchin’s Sunday statement was his retaliation, killing any hope for the bill’s passage in its current form.

Yet, despite Manchin’s statement and White House anger at his move, Biden spokeswoman Psaki continued to insist that the president would not give up on his efforts to win Manchin’s support. “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. Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground,” Psaki said.


Psaki also defended the cost of the Build Back Better bill as passed by the House, refuting a new $4.5 trillion cost estimate that was released by the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) two weeks ago. That shockingly high estimate turned out to be one of the key factors in Manchin’s ultimate decision to vote against Biden’s bill. It had been requested from the CBO by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham based on the assumption that all of its temporary spending measures in the House version of the bill would eventually be made permanent, as Democrats say they want and expect. The CBO concluded that in that case, over the next decade, the measures in the bill would eventually lead to a $3 trillion increase in the national debt. The new CBO cost estimate was also consistent with those from other independent sources

On Sunday, Graham was quick to praise Manchin’s statement announcing that he could not support Biden’s bill. Graham also said that rather than trying to pass more wasteful liberal spending programs, Congress and the Senate should focus instead on cures for “roaring inflation, particularly in the energy sector, as well as a broken supply chain, and potential threats coming from the new coronavirus variant.”

In an effort to discredit the CBO’s cost and deficit estimates, Psaki continued to claim that as the bill stands now, it is fully financed by the increased taxes and expanded IRS collection measures it calls for. She also argued that some of the increased federal spending measures in the bill would ultimately lead to a reduction in the pressures driving inflation in today’s economy, although she would not say how long it would take for that relief to become apparent to hard-pressed consumers.


Democrat party leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chick Schumer, joined with the White House in refusing to acknowledge that Manchin’s opposition had effectively killed the bill. They insisted that they would continue to find some way to reconfigure it in such a way that at least some of its provisions could be voted into law in time to help Democrat candidates running for re-election in next year’s midterm elections. However, it is not at all clear that party leaders, who had already been struggling to hold together their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate, can now reunite their warring factions in one last desperate effort to revive Biden’s bill.

Meanwhile, Majority Leader Schumer sent a letter to his fellow Senate Democrats promising to schedule votes on a revised version of Biden’s bill early in 2022 “so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.”


The most surprising feature of the initial White House response to Manchin’s announcement was its insulting tone. Psaki’s initial statement, which Biden had approved, was deeply personal. It referred to Manchin’s October visit to Biden’s Delaware home for breakfast and a personal tour in an effort by the president to use his charm to close the deal with the West Virginia senator. Psaki said that Manchin had committed to Biden “at his home in Wilmington to support the Build Back Better framework that the president then subsequently announced,” and that Manchin’s Sunday statement had violated that commitment.

Progressive criticisms of Manchin were even more insulting, accusing him of insisting on the removal of some of the clean-energy measures in the bill because of his personal financial interest in a family-owned West Virginia coal business.

Over the past year, the White House had treated Manchin carefully, refraining from any personal criticism, while seeking to respond to his objections to the bill as it has evolved, since it was first proposed by Biden as a companion to his bipartisan infrastructure bill during the spring.


After getting over their initial burst of anger at Manchin, the Biden White House and Democrat leaders quickly realized that they still need Manchin’s Senate vote in the months ahead to pass the partisan bills on liberal issues such as voting rights that are still on their agenda. As a result, on Monday, Psaki began the process of trying to lower the temperature of her previous criticisms directed at the West Virginia senator.

In her comments to the White House press corps, Psaki tried to downplay the breakdown in Biden’s talks with Manchin. She repeatedly tried to frame their current dispute as a temporary disagreement between “longtime friends.” Psaki said, “Senator Manchin had a strong statement yesterday, and we had a strong statement as well. And we’re ready to move forward and get this done and work [very hard] to do that.”

Democrat party leaders also began to consult with the leaders of their various party factions. Their goal, which at this point may not be attainable, is to reach a new consensus on which provisions in the Build Back Better bill would have to be cut out completely, and which would survive in yet another new version of the bill redesigned to meet Manchin’s requirements.

However, given the bitter wrangling between the progressive and moderate factions over the past six months, and the additional tensions between them introduced by the finger-pointing over Manchin’s rejection, it is hard to see how they would now be able to come together and reach such agreement.


Despite the White House efforts to repair its damaged relationship with Manchin, he was still angry. In a 14-minute interview with a local West Virginia radio news interviewer Monday, he continued to blame liberal White House staff members and Democrat party leaders for falsely assuming that he could be pressured into voting for such a costly package.

Manchin said, “I knew where they [party leaders] were and I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it, because they figured, ‘Surely. . . we can move one person. Surely we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough [so] they’ll just say, ‘OK, I’ll vote for anything, just quit.’” Manchin also said that despite his months of negotiations over the bill with the president and party leaders, it still remained too large in both scope and cost to win his support.

Manchin’s comments were no doubt partially inspired by his desire to push back at criticism he had received this March. At that time, President Biden had personally persuaded him to vote for his $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, after Manchin had publicly expressed his concerns that its high costs would increase the national debt and could trigger inflation. Because Manchin gave in at that time, many Republican and Democrats suspected that despite the similar concerns he has been expressing about the Build Back Better bill, he would again give in to White House pressure to support that measure, too.


While the White House and party leaders were trying to mend their fences, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Democrat progressive faction in the House, was still unforgiving in her Monday comments, rejecting Manchin’s continued demands for a much smaller version of the bill. She warned that “no one should think that we are going to be satisfied with an even smaller package.

“We did rely on the president’s word that he had a commitment from Joe Manchin, and I have said I don’t believe the president lied about that. [But] if the president of the United States cannot rely upon the commitment of a member of his own party, obviously, that’s a problem. That lack of integrity is stunning in a town where people say the only thing that you have is your word,” she added.

In a CNN interview two days before Manchin’s announcement that he could not vote for the bill, Jayapal had said that she and her fellow progressives had suspected all along that they would be betrayed by moderates like Manchin in that fashion, which is why her caucus had insisted on simultaneous House votes on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill. “This is what we feared. It’s why we tied the two bills together to pass them through the House,” Jayapal said Friday. “And we did take the president’s word that he would get 50 votes in the Senate.”

Now that President Biden has proven to be unable to deliver Manchin’s crucial 50th vote, progressives are furious at the growing likelihood that none of their policy priorities in Biden’s bill will get passed into law before Democrats lose their congressional majorities in the November midterm elections.


Many House Democratic moderates representing swing districts were also deeply disturbed by Manchin’s declaration that he could not vote for Biden’s bill, because it dashed their hopes of being able to campaign for re-election next November on its most popular provisions, including the regulation of some prescription drug prices, the extension of the child care tax credit, the expansion of Medicaid benefits to cover another 3.4 million Americans living in Republican-governed states across the country, as well as money to increase payments to in-home health care workers.

Without those accomplishments to run on, even Democrat pollsters are predicting that many of those moderate Democrats are likely to go down to defeat. Voters are deeply disappointed, both with President Biden’s job performance and the Democrats’ failure to adequately address more immediate concerns over inflation and yet another resurgence of the Covid pandemic that Biden had promised to end.

In the 2020 election, Virginia Democrat Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger barely won re-election in her swing district. In a heated Democrat election post-mortem, she attributed that close call, and the defeat of many of her moderate House Democrat colleagues, to the anger of moderate voters at progressive support for the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement for the defunding of local police.

On Sunday, she once again expressed her anger, but this time at Senator Manchin for endangering Democrat hopes for Senate passage of Biden’s bill. “After months of negotiations, one Democratic U.S. senator has now summarily walked away from productive negotiations,” Spanberger said. “That is unacceptable, and we cannot act like this moment is the end. Children, families and the future of our planet are counting on us.”

Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s bill also endangers $555 billion it would spend on new federal measures to further reduce the emission of greenhouse gases to meet Biden’s 2030 target, in an intensified effort to fight global warning. Manchin has responded that such spending is unnecessary, because “The energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America.” However, the White House disagrees. In her Sunday response to Manchin’s announcement, Biden spokeswoman Psaki said, “Build Back Better will produce a job-creating clean-energy future for this country—including West Virginia.”


While Democrats viewed Manchin’s Sunday announcement as a disaster for both the party’s electoral prospects in the midterm elections and for Biden’s presidency, the Wall Street Journal editorial page suggested that by killing the Build Back Better, Manchin has given Biden a chance to rescue the rest of his presidency by abandoning his progressive policy agenda and firing his White House liberal aides, including chief of staff Ron Klain and domestic policy advisor Susan Rice, who encouraged Biden to embrace a progressive agenda for which he had not received an adequate mandate from American voters.

The editorial also assigns some of the blame for the Democrats misjudging Manchin’s intentions to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. They ignored an explicit statement from Manchin during the summer in which he clearly laid out his red lines for the Build Back Better bill.

Instead of taking Manchin’s objections seriously by downsizing the scope and costs of the bill accordingly, Schumer and Pelosi gave in to the demands of progressives by retaining many of the bill’s most expensive policy initiatives, while unsuccessfully trying to hide their true cost through the cynical use of budget accounting tricks. It was a fatal mistake for which moderate Democrat candidates will pay a heavy price at the polls next November, and likely in the 2024 presidential election as well.

The editorial suggests that Biden should replace them with a new set of advisers “willing to [help him] govern from the middle. He can start by focusing on the main concerns of voters: coping with Covid-19, reducing inflation, and at least trying to do something to restore order at the border.”


There is a precedent for a liberal Democrat president in trouble with voters to make such a mid-course correction to save the remainder of his presidency. Bill Clinton did it 25 years ago, after voters punished Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections for supporting Hillary Clinton’s misguided health care reform proposal. In response to that message from the voters, Bill Clinton moved toward the political center by declaring in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.”

It was more than just rhetoric. Clinton actually did adopt more centrist policies. With cooperation from then-GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Clinton passed a landmark reform to federal welfare programs requiring their able-bodied participants to work for their benefits. He also cut excess government spending and actually balanced the federal budget. Clinton was rewarded for those accomplishments by the voters in 1996 through election to a second term in office.


However, the Wall Street Journal editorial also raises doubts as to whether President Biden is currently strong enough to follow Clinton’s example by cutting his ties to progressive supporters and pivoting to adopt a more centrist, mainstream policy agenda that focuses on what most voters really want.

Former Reagan and Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow, who hosts a daily opinion show on Fox Business, believes that Biden is now so committed to the progressive agenda being imposed upon his administration by Senators Sanders and Warren and the members of faction in the House led by Jayapal and other members of AOC’s squad that he is simply incapable of successfully changing course, as Clinton did.


Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell now have every reason to be confident that Biden’s political capital has been spent and look forward to a landslide victory next November. But there is a cautionary lesson for them to learn from the current dilemma facing the Democrats as well.

They must not make the same mistake that Pelosi and Schumer did by allowing their party to be driven by ideological advocates more eager to pursue a preset conservative agenda than heed the clearly expressed wishes of the voters and the best interests of country.

It is time for the moderate centrists of both parties to reassert their leadership in order for the deep social divisions within this country to be healed, law and order to be restored, and a sense of normalcy, tolerance and civility to return.



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