Democrats have been searching for ways to revive President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan in a more limited capacity since Sen. Joe Manchin pumped the brakes last year. But the West Virginia Democrat said Tuesday that a new round of formal negotiations has yet to happen.
Manchin’s latest comments add a new wrinkle to the saga over whether Democrats can pass any version of the party’s social spending and climate agenda. He raised eyebrows when telling reporters on Tuesday that Build Back Better is “dead” and later clarified that he was referring to the original bill. He added that talks have been frozen since December and “there’s no organized conversations going on.”
Even as Democratic leaders said they’ll keep pursuing the second half of Biden’s agenda, Manchin’s forecast on the process doesn’t look promising for the fate of even a scaled-back bill, especially as his concerns around inflation haven’t gone away.
“If we’re talking about the whole big package, that’s gone,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday afternoon, explaining what he meant about the legislation being “dead.” When asked if he’d entertain a smaller bill, he added, “We’ll see what people come up with. I don’t know.”
For the past month, Democrats in both chambers have been trying to resurrect the legislation and have all acknowledged it’ll need to be downsized to potentially attract support from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. All 50 Democratic senators need to be aboard to pass legislation through the budget reconciliation process without any Republican votes.
Democrats are up against a tougher deadline than before since they’d need to pass something before the November midterm elections when control of the Senate and House will be up for grabs. To advance major party priorities, Biden needs Democrats to remain in power. But they face political headwinds since the party in the White House typically loses seats in midterms.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said his party is still “fighting hard” for Build Back Better and noted that Manchin is still talking with other senators about how to move forward.
“We want to get as much of Build Back Better done as we can and you will see us move forward on it,” Schumer said at his Tuesday press conference.
Manchin – and Sinema – have been the biggest pieces of the puzzle for Democrats who have been otherwise mostly aligned on Build Back Better. As of now and based on his recent comments, Manchin appears to be letting the process play out and taking more of a back-seat role, though he’s still open to new talks. And while the price tag would ultimately be a lot lower, he said Tuesday he still has concerns about inflation and the economic effect of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The rest of the party, however, still appears committed to advancing more of Biden’s agenda, since Congress already passed the first half through the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill.
During last month’s press conference, Biden talked about a strategy to still deliver on his social safety net package and focus on “chunks” of the original $1.75 trillion bill, meaning only certain pieces of the initial Build Back Better proposal would likely make it into any new version.
Manchin has previously indicated what areas of the previous bill could still gain his support, including universal pre-kindergarten, some climate measures and Affordable Care Act provisions. But on Tuesday, he wouldn’t elaborate on what he could envision in a new Build Back Better bill.
As of late, the West Virginia senator has devoted more of his attention to bipartisan efforts to reform and clarify the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which dictates how Congress counts electoral votes in presidential elections. He described that legislation on Monday as being “on a hot track right now.” He also wants to see Congress pass an appropriations bill to fund the government before the Feb. 18 deadline.
The other biggest obstacle to Build Back Better is that reducing the scope and costs of the legislation leaves out a lot of priorities and competing interests for members.
Some moderate Democrats in the House, especially those who face tough reelection races in states with high taxes, are still pushing for lifting the state and local tax deduction cap, once again saying they won’t vote for a bill that doesn’t include SALT relief.
And the expanded child tax credit, which expired last month, is unlikely to make it back into a new version of Build Back Better. An extension of the credit would once again give families $3,600 per child under age 6 and $3,000 per child between 6 to 18.
Even with Manchin’s latest observations, the White House believes there’s still overwhelming support for a number of components of the original bill, including investments in child and elder care, universal pre-K and health care, which includes allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs.
“Whatever you call that, there’s strong support for that, strong passion for that, a lot of advocacy for that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Tuesday’s briefing, “and there are a lot of members having continued conversations about it.”