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And just like that, Build Back Better died.
With apologies to the Sex and the City spinoff, that was the effect of Sen. Joe Manchin’s visit to the set of Fox News Sunday, a performance that sent Washington insiders scrambling, progressives reaching for pitchforks and Republicans quietly repositioning their chess board for 2022 and 2024. After Manchin said he was never going to get to yes on fellow Democrats’ big-ticket agenda for the balance of this Congress, any hopes of moving the social spending and climate change bill in its current form collapsed—and, perhaps with it, the legacy of Joe Biden’s presidency.
“I can’t move forward. I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation, I just can’t,” he told Fox yesterday. “I tried everything possible,” Manchin added. “I can’t get there. … This is a no.”
For months, Manchin has been at the center of negotiations over a bill that kept shrinking in size and scope in order to lure the West Virginia Democrat to an agreeable position. Manchin had given hints and nods, winks and glances like he was a good-faith negotiator on the massive plan, which went from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion to meet his demands. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cautioned his caucus against pushing too hard, lest Manchin just tear up his voting card altogether and sail his yacht home to West Virginia.
By last week, emotions were raw. Talks between Biden and Manchin were going poorly, staffers were sniping at each other—never a good sign—and the lawmaker himself was roaring at reporters. “Guys, I’m not negotiating with any of you all. You can ask all the questions you want. Guys, let me go. This is bullshit. You’re bullshit,” he erupted last Wednesday in the Senate subway. As he walked away, he muttered a “God almighty” to himself.
By Sunday, the plain-spoken lawmaker was evidently done. To say his comments on Fox upended Washington would be an understatement. The White House issued an unusually personal, 707-word statement criticizing Manchin. Progressive groups fired up their email lists and social media accounts. Even hold-the-line lawmakers who would never be accused of intemperance let loose.
But here’s the thing: Manchin has been saying was going to be the outcome for months. Washington—especially Democrats—just didn’t want to hear it. Manchin ended his Fox News appearance at roughly the same spot he sketched out IN JULY. That’s right; Manchin in a July 28 memo to Schumer said exactly what his red lines were, including “no additional handouts or transfer payments.” (This, of course, runs in the face of West Virginia’s distinction as the biggest taker of handouts in the form of transfer payments in the country.)
That very clearly set up Manchin to reject a continuation of a popular Child Tax Credit that expires at the end of this month but would have been extended in Build Back Better. The Medicare expansion proposed also wasn’t going to work for him. And the climate change provisions were always a non-starter with Manchin, who wanted coal and natural gas to qualify for carbon capture programs. He also wanted Congress and Biden to dictate to the Federal Reserve to ease up on its support for low interest rates; such a move against the independent Fed would break just about every ounce of political insulation.
Manchin knows his state’s politics, which elected Donald Trump by 42 and 39 percentage points. He is probably the last Democrat in the state who can win it for some time. Democrats begged him to run again in 2018, and he did so with the condition that the party give him some leeway. “This place sucks,” Manchin told Schumer at the time before relenting.
Democrats have known about all of Manchin’s long-standing demands. Schumer even signed Manchin’s July 28 memo, with the caveat that he planned to try and dissuade his colleague on many of its points. The following day, Manchin released a statement based on the outline and had a long conversation with reporters on the Hill. And on July 30, Manchin had a formal press conference outlining his demands. “I’ve never been a liberal in any way, shape or form,” Manchin said back in the summer, adding that in order to pass a more liberal agenda, Democrats “have to elect more liberals.”
Most Democrats thought they could outplay Manchin, an affable guy who is popular on both sides of the aisle for his willingness to make small talk and tell a good story like none other. Lawmakers—even those who don’t trust him—find him fun to be around, a trait that is rare in the sometimes stuffy Senate.
The smart Democrats, however, predicted this would be the result.
“This was a no all along,” Rep. Cori Bush told MSNBC. She, along with others in the progressive caucus referred to as The Squad, opposed the decision to decouple a bipartisan infrastructure plan from the Build Back Better bill. She said Democrats were giving up their leverage to get Build Back Better across the finish line if they separated the two proposals. “Having those coupled together was the only leverage we had. What did the caucus do? We tossed it.”
The Squad’s prescience is of little comfort to their Democratic colleagues who fell in line with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to take the Biden agenda in two bites instead of one. They went along with a scaled-back agenda that could get Republican votes in the Senate on infrastructure with the promise of a Democrat-only social spending bill that could use a legislative loophole in the Senate to pass with just 50 votes.
Well, with Manchin officially out, Democrats are parked at 49 votes, with no prospects of a single Republican crossing over. Which means Act II of the Biden’s ambitious spending plan appears destined to meet a dark fate, ala Mr. Big.
And just like that, the next three years of Biden’s first term could be a very different ride.
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