As Democrats in Washington scrambled on Wednesday to prevent President Biden’s $2 trillion spending package from derailing, a group of West Virginia parents gathered on a video call as part of a last-minute effort to turn up the heat on one of their senators, Democrat Joe Manchin III.
The intensity of the debate has reached a fever pitch as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he wants to pass the bill by Christmas and it’s increasingly looking as if that timeline has slipped out of reach because of Manchin’s demands.
On Wednesday’s video call, 11 West Virginia mothers dialed in and waited for a Manchin aide to join them. They aimed to impress upon him how the expanded monthly child tax credit, championed by Biden and most Democrats in Congress and included in the spending bill, had changed their lives.
As they waited, they chatted about how the tax credit had helped them all in the past several months to purchase necessities like food, said Amy Jo Hutchison, a West Virginia organizer who had set up the call. Some of the women dialed in while picking up kids from child care.
“These are people who had their own child tax credit stories and how much it’s helped their lives,” Hutchison said. “It’s the working folks who have to adjust their days and their schedules to be able to speak to power and elected officials in the first place.”
But less than 20 minutes before the call was supposed to start, the Manchin aide emailed to apologize and ask to reschedule for Thursday, Hutchison said.
“Senator Manchin prides himself on having an open-door policy and meeting with all West Virginians. Unfortunately, sometimes the Senate schedule or other pressing matters require staff to reschedule meetings,” Sam Runyon, a spokeswoman for Manchin, said in a statement on Wednesday night. “In this case, as in most cases, the meeting was immediately rescheduled for [Thursday] afternoon and the staffer provided his phone number to anyone that was unable to participate in the call.”
The Senate has 48 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the party, giving it just enough for a majority during the first two years of Biden’s presidency. Each Democrat means the difference between a bill passing and failing, but no lawmaker has so far shown a willingness to test that power as much as Manchin.
For weeks, in a reflection of the enormous leverage he holds, Manchin has sought to delicately explain his position on the $2 trillion spending package, emphasizing that he is open to a deal but concerned about inflation and moving too quickly. He has refused to walk away from talks but also refused to change his stance, while openly criticizing some of the bill’s social spending provisions.
In response, advocates in his home state have sought to expose him to stories of people who have been worried about their fate if a temporary expansion of the social safety net pushed by Biden disappears. At the same time, business lobbies like the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, which is opposed to the Biden plan’s tax increases, have sought to emphasize the political peril that Manchin might face if he supports the bill.
Perhaps nowhere has the effort to sway Manchin been more evident than on the expanded child tax credit, which Democrats have touted as a critical measure for fighting child poverty. The expanded credit, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan in March and first sent out in July, made far more poor families eligible than before, raised the maximum credit to $3,600 per year for children 5 and under and $3,000 per year for older children, and provided for the credit to be paid out monthly rather than just annually. The final batch of payments under the expanded program were issued Wednesday.
The changes to the credit cut child poverty by 40 percent, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. A CBPP analysis of Census Bureau data found that 91 percent of low-income families are using their payments for basic household expenses or education.
But those benefits come at a price: An original plan to extend the expanded credit through 2025 was assessed to cost $556 billion. The expansion was later cut to a one-year renewal during negotiations over the spending bill, in what some viewed as a major concession to Manchin.
If the expanded credit is not renewed by late December, either as part of Biden’s larger agenda or as a stand-alone measure, there won’t be enough time for the Internal Revenue Service to issue payments in January.
The effort to sway Manchin has been organized by a loose-knit coalition of secular and faith-based groups and has included private meetings with religious leaders, organizing hundreds of calls to Manchin’s offices, writing opinion pieces in support, and even delivering a quilt to Manchin’s office showing the stories of West Virginians receiving the credit.
Jim McKay, state coordinator at Prevent Child Abuse WV, said he understands that Manchin would want to be deliberate about important federal legislation.
“We feel like if there are reservations about any of those provisions, having conversations with impacted people might allay those concerns or reservations and forge a pathway forward,” McKay said. “There comes a time when decisions need to be made and inaction does come with a price, particularly with the child tax credit.”
Several religious leaders with the West Virginia Council of Churches met with Manchin at his Washington office in November, said the Rev. Jeffrey Allen, the group’s executive director, who attended the meeting. They discussed the benefits they had seen among their own congregations from families receiving the credit, he said.
“He had this concern about work requirements,” Allen said. Manchin expressed similar views on CNN in September, saying: “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?”
Allen said his gut feeling is that Manchin will ultimately support extending the credit.
“I think in the end, he knows West Virginia, he knows the people, and he knows the need,” he said.
Tony Romm contributed to this report.