Dashing Democrats’ Hopes, Manchin Calls Build Back Better ‘Dead’

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It’s no secret that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s gift of the gab is a point of pride. His flip phone was practically an appendage for the top Democrat even before he took the reins of an evenly divided Upper Chamber with zero margin for error. And, for President Joe Biden’s first year in power, Schumer largely talked his way to wins for Democrats, so much so that TIME’s Molly Ball branded him The Great Kibitzer in a profile last year.

But as with so many places in this country, the Senate’s sheriff isn’t always its political enforcer. That distinction belongs to the coroner, who in many states outranks sheriffs. And, as Sen. Joe Manchin knows well in his current de facto role as the Senate’s resident coroner, he has the singular power to declare an idea dead and no one can overrule him.

Take Biden’s Build Back Better bill, an ambitious climate-change and social-spending package whose price tag started at $6 trillion and eventually shrank to $1.75 trillion to accommodate Manchin’s worries when it passed the House in November. Included was almost a half-trillion dollars to wean Americans off fossil fuels and protect the environment, while separately funding universal pre-K programs and sending monthly checks to parents.

The provisions on their own are politically popular, but the constant branding of the plan by Republicans as a progressive dreamscape spooked Manchin, who said the spending was too high and included too many entitlements. (Ignore, for the moment, that West Virginia is consistently one of the states that gets way more Washington money than it sends here in tax revenue, while places like Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts basically pay federal taxes to subsidize poor states like it.) In December, Manchin said the bill still was too big, single-handedly killing it on the 2021 agenda as he warned for months he would if he didn’t think it was responsible.

Well, Democrats are trying again. The new idea is to break the proposal apart and pass some of it during an election year that is expected to be rough on Democrats. Climate change, for instance, could be a boost to House Democrats in tough races. The Center for American Progress’ political arm on Tuesday outlined why climate should be paired with a family-care raft of ideas and significant tweaks to health care, including a $35 monthly cap on insulin. For his part, Biden has now bought into the idea that his team will need to take a piecemeal approach to the campaign-tested agenda, telling reporters on Jan. 19 that he hopes to “break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later.”

But when Manchin got the question on Tuesday, he didn’t seem interested. “What Build Back Better bill? There is no, I mean, I don’t know what you all are talking about,” he told reporters in the hallway. It was congressional shade at its finest, rivaling the celebrity snub “I don’t know her.” Upon further questioning, Manchin made clear that he’s not negotiating any longer on the big-ticket agenda. “No, no, no. It’s dead.”

That leaves Democrats’ hopes of having one or two more victories this election year on life support. Congress has passed a bipartisan infrastructure plan and Democrats followed-up with another bite of government spending but mangled the messaging. Voting-rights legislation seems to have died, as did plans for a policing reform bill. A Supreme Court nomination is expected to dominate the Senate’s attention in coming weeks. And history has consistently shown the party in power for the first two years of an administration faces deep setbacks in their first test with voters.

Adding to that, Democrats at least for a beat will be missing their 50th lawmaker. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, 49, is recovering from a stroke at home in New Mexico. His staff says he’s expected to make a full recovery, but his absence complicates the political math even further.

In an evenly divided Senate, party unity is the only way to get such a lift across the finish line by using Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker and a rare procedural loophole that dodges the typical 60-vote requirement. And that gives Manchin the power to stop the proposal dead. Not even Schumer’s talents of the talk can revive something if Manchin is standing over the body. A cell phone, after all, cannot do CPR on a slain piece of policy.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com