The Build Back Better Act is dead. Long live the Build Back Better Act?
With a few short sentences on Fox News, Senator Joe Manchin today dashed the dreams of Democrats by coming out firmly against President Joe Biden’s signature legislative proposal. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” Manchin said of the $1.75 trillion bill that the House passed last month.
His opposition after months of negotiations adds to a hellish winter that followed a brutal autumn for Biden, who is presiding over yet another resurgence of the pandemic, stubbornly high inflation, and an electorate that has soured on him. Now Manchin has seemingly demolished the centerpiece of the president’s economic agenda in Congress, validating the warnings of progressives who for months held up the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill because they feared the West Virginia centrist—who, in a 50-50 Senate, essentially wields a veto pen among Democrats—would do exactly what he did.
Yet if today signaled the death knell of the Build Back Better Act as a single, catch-all legislative proposal, some of its core policies might get a second life. It has long been clear that the specific criticism Manchin has levied—that Build Back Better would use many years of new tax revenue to fund only a few years of programs—are incompatible with the entire design of the bill that the House passed. For weeks earlier this year, Democrats debated amongst themselves whether to fund a whole bunch of new programs—the expanded child tax credit, paid family leave, universal pre-K, affordable housing, an expansion of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act—for a few years or to pick just one or two priorities and fund them for much longer. The party ultimately chose the first option, but Manchin belatedly insisted on the second. He was demanding wholesale revisions to narrow the bill’s scope and unless he caved, Democrats were not going to satisfy his public concerns with a few tweaks or cuts.
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What offers Democrats a glimmer of hope now is that Manchin had stopped squabbling over the cost of the bill. He had agreed to a top price tag of $1.75 trillion, and as recently as Tuesday, according to the White House, he had submitted to Biden 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.” Might Biden now return to that proposal? Might Manchin?
The best-case scenario for Biden is that Manchin intended his comments today not as a definitive end to negotiations but as a hard-line tactic aimed at forcing Democrats to take his position seriously, to stop trying to pressure him to buckle, and to end their attempts to win his support merely by tinkering around the edges of Build Back Better. Hoping to enact the bill by the end of the year, Democrats were loath to start over. Now it seems they must, and therein lies an opportunity.
Although nearly all congressional Democrats had fallen in line with the Build Back Better Act, a small but vocal chorus of outside pundits and policy experts shared Manchin’s view that the House-passed bill spread itself too thin and undercut its own political and substantive goals. The child-care provisions could raise costs for the middle class; red states would ignore funding to expand pre-K programs; the child tax credit, arguably the bill’s most proven anti-poverty measure, was funded for the shortest amount of time. These critics pushed Democrats to jettison elements of their long wish list that could not easily fit into a bill whose size had already been sliced in half from its original $3.5 trillion. The party, they said, should instead focus on proposals—the child tax credit, a bid to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, and a major investment in climate change—that polled the best and were likely to do the most good. Democrats had rebuffed these suggestions, but Manchin’s stance might force them to reconsider.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant could provide Democrats another reason to retool their bill and inject a fresh sense of urgency into their efforts to pass it. (Here they would once again be following the crisis advice of the former White House chief of staff whom the Senate just confirmed as Biden’s ambassador to Japan.) Some House Democrats have already begun calling for another round of pandemic assistance. The expanded child tax credit, which expires at the end of the month, was originally part of a COVID-19 relief package. Manchin has urged the White House to fight inflation and help reduce the cost of everyday items like food and gas. That’s the same price-slashing goal of the Democrats’ prescription-drug proposal, one of the pieces of the Build Back Better Act that Manchin had already gotten behind.
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The part of the $1.75 trillion bill most at risk now is clearly its $550 billion in spending on climate change, which Manchin has never fully embraced. The climate piece is a nonnegotiable priority of progressives, but it would be a harder sell for Manchin—never an environmentalist to begin with—in a bill aimed squarely at immediate pocketbook issues.
If the White House plans to pivot away from Build Back Better and try again with something new, it offered no hint of that strategy on Sunday. Jen Psaki, the press secretary, released a lengthy, biting statement rebutting Manchin’s arguments and accusing the senator of a wholesale reversal in position. She made little attempt at a positive spin, and she didn’t detail Biden’s next steps. “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning,” Psaki said, “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.”
Since shortly after he took office, Biden’s ambitions for a transformative domestic policy have seemed to exceed the size of his party’s tiny majorities on Capitol Hill. What has held the party together—and kept those dreams alive—is a shared urgency, at times bordering on desperation, to deliver on those promises. Until recently, nearly every Democrat has operated under the belief that for the party to have any chance at remaining in power, it needed to back Biden’s agenda. “We’re going to make Joe Biden successful,” Manchin said back in February, in a comment that presaged his vote for the president’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Manchin remains a Democrat, but today he broke decisively away from that shared principle. Unless Biden can revive that sentiment within West Virginia’s senior senator, his prized piece of legislation will truly be dead.