Biden’s White House Failed to Get Manchin’s Build Back Better Vote

WASHINGTON — Joe Manchin wasn’t buying it. The negotiations over President Biden’s signature piece of legislation, the Build Back Better Act, had reached a critical moment. The Senate was getting ready to leave for the holidays. The White House needed to secure Manchin’s vote to have any hope of passing the sprawling $1.9-trillion bill before Christmas.

But the longer the negotiations dragged on, the more concerns Manchin seemed to have. All that spending would propel inflation ever higher. It would spike the national deficit to dangerous levels. Power companies were making the transition to clean energy without needing a massive government investment. And while the bill was designed to sunset key programs after a certain number of years, Manchin feared that spending would become permanent, and that the true cost of the Build Back Better Act was much higher than its supporters claimed.

Biden and his aides touted all the ways the bill — an amalgam of dozens of measures, from universal pre-kindergarten to paid family leave, huge investments in electric cars to a cap on the price of insulin  — would improve the lives of West Virginians. They shared study after study with Manchin to assuage his concerns about inflation. They insisted that the bill paid for itself, and that a recent budget projection showing an additional $3 trillion in deficit spending was nonsense. As for Manchin’s fears about the bill’s true cost, Biden himself vowed to not support any extensions to the programs in the bill if they weren’t paid for.

The full-court press didn’t work — despite the decades-long relationship between the Senator from West Virginia and the former Senator from Delaware. The rapport between the two Joes wasn’t enough. “His liking of the president was only going to carry him so far,” a source close to Manchin says. “It wouldn’t change his perception that the bill could be harmful to his constituency and the country.” And as for the push to get the bill done by Christmas … Manchin had signaled all year that he’d rather tackle the bill in 2022.

A veteran activist who deals with the White House and followed the BBB negotiations says Biden and his team overplayed their hand when it came to earning Manchin’s support. “I think that the White House really, really, really wanted BBB before the holiday,” the activist says. “They overcooked the milk on BBB. I think they pushed him too hard and pissed him off.”

To the surprise of people who know him well, Manchin not only refused to give his backing but took the extra step of appearing on Fox News to announce his outright opposition to the Build Back Better Act, effectively killing the bill in its current form.

“I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,’” Manchin said. “Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation.”

The Biden White House responded to Manchin’s announcement by saying he deceived the president and reneged on previous commitments to help pass the bill. “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement, “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.”

A source close to Manchin sees it differently. “This is a 50-50 Senate, for now, and Democrats and the president need his vote,” that source tells Rolling Stone. “Pushing Senator Manchin away with a caustic statement could endanger efforts in the new year and beyond.”

Congressional aides, lobbyists, and activists who’ve followed the Build Back Better Act negotiations say the latest — and potentially decisive — breakdown in the talks between Manchin and the White House happened early this past week.

For several weeks, these sources say, a key disagreement between them was the true cost of the many social, economic, and environmental programs in the bill. The bill came with a price tag of $1.9 trillion, but Manchin said — as he had for months — that the White House wasn’t being completely honest about the long-term costs of the bill. Progressive Democrats insisted the certain programs would sunset after a period of time; Manchin, the source close to him says, wanted to know what those programs would cost if they were extended farther into the future.

A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found that Build Back Better would add $3 trillion to the federal deficit if Congress renewed its key programs and didn’t pay for them. That $3 trillion figure worried Manchin. So, too, did several months of growing inflation, a worry that Manchin expressed publicly on multiple occasions. “Inflation is real, it’s not transitory,” he said. “It’s alarming. It’s going up, not down. And I think that should be something we’re concerned about.”

Manchin took his concerns directly to Biden and the White House in a meeting and several calls this past week. “Once [CBO’s new score] was out there, he felt like he had Biden dead to rights,” the source close to Manchin says. “Then he could say, ‘Let’s be honest about having these programs in there. And if they’re in there, let’s figure out how to pay for them.’ “

Manchin’s hesitations about the bill should not have come as a surprise. In July, he circulated a one-page document that outlined his list of demands for the Build Back Better Act. He wanted a $1.5-trillion cap on total spending, a corporate tax rate no higher than 25 percent, means testing of social programs, and a provision that any revenue raised by the bill above its overall price tag go toward deficit reduction and not additional social spending. At the bottom of the memo, dated July 28, there was a disclaimer: “Senator Manchin does not guarantee he will vote for the final reconciliation legislation if it exceeds the conditions outlined in the agreement.”

“Manchin was very clear from the very beginning, cards on the table the entire time,” the source close to Manchin says. “I think the White House just hoped he would change his mind.”

Manchin’s July memo and his more recent statement explaining his decision to oppose Build Back Better point to objections he had with the climate portions of the bill. Environmental policy experts say the bill’s proposed spending on electric cars, wind and solar energy, and energy efficiency would amount to a historic investment in fighting climate change. But in Manchin’s view, some of those investments would accelerate the transition to clean energy and away from fossil fuels “at a rate that is faster than the technology or the markets allow” leading to “catastrophic consequences for the American people.”

Manchin’s critics highlighted his long-standing coziness with West Virginia’s coal industry, as well as his own financial stake in his family’s coal-services company — a stake that has earned him millions of dollars during his time in the Senate.

For Biden, the setback on his biggest policy priority undercuts a central premise of his bid for the presidency — that as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, he could forge consensus and win Republican votes for sweeping new legislation on the economy, climate, and voting rights. “With Donald Trump out of the White House — not a joke — you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” he said on the campaign trail in May 2019.

“Biden ran on a pledge of knowing how to get stuff done in the Senate,” says Jim Manley, a lobbyist who used to work for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “My problem with him saying that then, and apparently now, is that the Senate has changed since he left.”

“Worst of all,” Manley adds, “it was a fellow Democrat that stuck the knife in his ribs.”

Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better Act prompted furious reactions from progressive Democrats. This fall, progressives in Congress tried to link Build Back Better with a smaller roads-and-bridge infrastructure bill, insisting that one measure couldn’t pass without the other. The progressives eventually relented and approved the infrastructure deal on its own, but they insisted that Congress pass the more ambitious Build Back Better as quickly as possible.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Manchin had broken his “promise” to pass Build Back Better after liberal members agreed to vote through the infrastructure deal. “He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that,” Jayapal said in a statement. “West Virginians, and the country, see clearly who he is.”

Asked to comment on Manchin’s statement, Stephen Smith, co-chair of the liberal grassroots organization WV Can’t Wait and a vocal critic of the senator, wrote in an email: “Our task remains the same: replacejoemanchin.com.”

To win Manchin’s vote on big pieces of legislation, ultimatums and pressure campaigns were never the right approach, say former Manchin staffers and liberal activists who’ve dealt with him for years. Manchin is one of the last red-state Democrats and molded after an older generation of retail politicians. Activists who often believe Manchin is on the wrong side of history nevertheless say it’s useless to berate him; he rarely responds well to criticism or aggressive tactics in an effort to convince him to support a bill.

A different approach is what voting-rights and clean-government groups have done throughout the year to convince Manchin to pass a sweeping democratic-reform bill. Manchin opposed the initial version of that bill, the For the People Act, because no Republican senators had agreed to support it. Instead of blasting Manchin for his position, Senate Democrats told Manchin to put in writing what reforms he supported and then asked him to craft his own bill, later titled the Freedom to Vote Act.

Meanwhile, outside allies have spent millions of dollars on ads that feature West Virginians praising Manchin for taking a leadership role in the push to protect voting rights and repair American democracy. “Joe has written a plan that protects the freedom to vote and can help unite this country again,” Major General and former Adjutant General for the West Virginia National Guard Allen E. Tackett says in one ad by End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund.

The strategy appears to be working, at least for now. Unlike Build Back Better, the Freedom to Vote Act — which would be the largest voting-rights and anti-corruption reform deal in decades if it’s passed — requires a 60-vote majority unless Democrats reform or abolish the filibuster, the procedural tactic used to block non-economic legislation.

In the same Fox News Sunday interview where he said he wouldn’t vote for the Build Back Better Act, Manchin suggested that he’s open to the possibility of changing the Senate’s rules if it will make the chamber more functional. “Can we work on the rules that make the Senate work rather than the deadlock we have right now?” he told Fox’s Bret Baier. “Everyone thinks that end-all do-all is basically in the filibuster. It’s basically in how we operate and proceed every day of the Senate, which we’re not doing. That’s what needs to be changed.”

With voting rights, Manchin stated his position early on, his fellow Democrats adapted accordingly, and the Senate is poised to take up the Freedom to Vote Act — and the filibuster reform that passing it would require — early next year. In that fight, activists and lobbyists say, the White House has played a minor role at best, instead letting Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other moderate Democrats take the lead.

Now, Democratic officials and activists deeply involved in the voting-rights battle say they can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes made in the Build Back Better negotiations if they want to have any chance of passing the Freedom to Vote Act.

“This is a dicey moment where we see what happens when you miscalculate how to handle Manchin,” one leading voting-rights activist says. “If you hit the wrong target and send him the wrong way, it’s hard to reverse course.”

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