WASHINGTON — Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin all but delivered a death blow to President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion domestic initiative, throwing his party’s agenda into jeopardy, infuriating the White House and leaving angry colleagues desperate to salvage what’s left of a top priority.
The West Virginia senator’s announcement that he could not support the bill, delivered on “Fox News Sunday” after only a cursory heads-up to the president’s staff, potentially derails not only Biden’s Build Back Better Act, but sparks fresh questions over passing voting rights legislation and potentially other significant bills that would require his vote in the 50-50 Senate.
Responding to an outcry from fellow Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said early Monday that the Senate would vote on both in the new year — and keep voting on Biden’s big initiative “until we get something done.”
“We simply cannot give up,” Schumer said in a letter to colleagues.
Republicans praised Manchin for a maverick move in joining all GOP senators now halting Biden’s big social services and climate change package. But progressive Democrats mercilessly portrayed Manchin as a deal-breaker who failed to keep his word, and even moderates heaped on criticism after months of talks. Whether the senator, a lifelong Democrat, is making a definitive break from his party also became part of the discussion.
“We knew he would do this,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, a leader of House progressives, said Manchin can no longer say “he is a man of his word.”
“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,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who chairs the Budget Committee, said on CNN.
With Congress recessed for the Christmas holidays, the next steps are highly uncertain. Some Democrats insisted on recalling the Senate into session to force an immediate vote, although that appears unlikely. Others were fast at work trying to win back Manchin’s support and pick up the pieces of what one aide compared to a jigsaw puzzle tossed on the floor. Biden’s reputation as a seasoned dealmaker hung in the balance.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tried to strike an optimistic chord, assuring House Democrats and others that an agreement could still be reached early in the new year. Rather than denouncing Manchin — her statement Sunday night didn’t mention him by name — Pelosi encouraged members of her caucus to highlight the measure’s effects on constituents while “barnstorming” the nation in the weeks ahead.
“It is imperative that American families know how this once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure will improve their lives,” Pelosi said.
Manchin said Sunday that, after 5½ months of negotiations among Democrats, “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation.”
Manchin said: “I can’t get there.”
While Manchin appeared steadfast in his opposition, his choice of words about this specific bill seemed to keep open the door to continued talks with Biden and fellow Democrats over reshaping it.
Yet the senior West Virginia senator all but said the bill will die unless it meets his consistent demands for a smaller package — something that will be hard for many Democrats in the narrowly divided Congress to accept, even if they have few other options.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki unleashed an unusually hardball response to a lawmaker who had been personally courted by the president, and whose vote is crucial.
“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,” Psaki said.
The package would provide hundreds of billions of dollars to help millions of families by creating free preschool and bolstering child care aid. It would shore up federal subsidies for health insurance and expand access to Medicaid in states that have not done so.
There is more than $500 billion for tax breaks and spending aimed at curbing carbon emissions, many key provisions Manchin specifically negotiated, which experts consider the largest federal expenditure ever to combat climate change.
Other provisions would limit prescription drug price increases, create hearing benefits for Medicare recipients and bolster aid for the elderly, housing and job training. Nearly all of it would be paid for with higher taxes on the wealthy and large corporations.
A potential new deadline for Biden and his party comes with the expiration of an expanded child tax credit that has been sending up to $300 monthly directly to millions of families’ bank accounts. If Congress fails to act, the money won’t arrive in January.
Despite months of talks, negotiations between Biden and Manchin erupted last week, foreshadowing no year-end deal.
Psaki said in her statement that Manchin had, “in person,” given Biden a written proposal last Tuesday that was “the same size and scope” of a framework for the bill that Democrats rallied behind in October, and agreed he’d continue talks. That framework had a 10-year cost of $1.85 trillion. Officials hadn’t previously disclosed that Tuesday meeting.
There are different accounts of what transpired next, but the conversation did not go well. One person familiar with the closed-door talks said that, after Manchin introduced the idea of cutting the child tax credit, the conversation turned hot.
The Associated Press had previously reported that Biden and Manchin moved further apart.
By Sunday, a Manchin aide gave the White House about a 20-minute notice before the lawmaker announced his position on national television, said another person familiar with the senator’s actions who described them only on condition of anonymity.
Manchin’s declaration was a stunning repudiation of Biden and his party’s top goal, calling to mind the famous thumbs-down vote by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that killed President Donald Trump’s 2017 effort to repeal the health care law enacted under President Barack Obama.
Other problems with Biden’s package have arisen, caused by another moderate Democrat, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, but Manchin’s stands out.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, had spent weeks trying to turn Manchin against the bill and said, “I very much appreciate” Manchin’s opposition.
A rejection of the legislation has been seen by many as unthinkable, because of the political damage it could inflict on Democrats, particularly ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when their continued control of Congress seems in doubt.
“Failure is not an option,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., who reiterated moderates’ desire to see the bill refocused on fewer programs.
Manchin said he opposes the 10-year, roughly $2 trillion bill because of his concern about inflation, the growing federal debt and a need to focus on the omicron COVID-19 variant.
He also wants the bill’s initiatives to last the measure’s full 10-year duration, but that’s a tall order — the Democrats specifically made many of them temporary, to keep the bill’s overall price tag closer to what Manchin said he could live with.
Democrats dismiss Manchin’s assertions that the bill will fuel inflation and worsen budget deficits. They say its job training, education and other initiatives would spur economic growth and curb inflation in the long term.