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Opinion Why would West Virginia and Arizona senators balk at a bill that helps their states so much?

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) faces reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 7. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

At times, figuring out what Sens. Joe Machin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) want in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan is hard, if not impossible. Which is odd, since it sure seems like an awful lot of the items in the plan would help their states.

Take Medicare expansion. Manchin seems to oppose extending Medicare benefits to cover vision, dental and hearing benefits — among the most popular components of the bill. Supermajorities of Democrats and voters in general support this proposal. In Manchin’s home state, as of 2020, more than 442,000 West Virginians receive Medicare. (In Arizona, the number is about 1.35 million people.) So he wants to swim against the tide of overwhelming public opinion? If his argument is that spending on the elderly should be a lower priority than spending on children and families with children, he has yet to articulate it.

And what about children and families in his state? Given that West Virginia as of 2019 had a child poverty rate of roughly 20 percent, he should be the first one cheering the proposed extension of the child tax credit, universal pre-K and subsidized child care.

Likewise, the Children’s Action Alliance reports on data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “Since 2019, more Arizona children are living in high poverty areas, and more children in the state are without health insurance. . . . In Arizona, 15% of children live in high poverty areas compared with the national average of 9%, and in 2019, 9% of Arizona children are without health insurance compared with the national average of 6%.” Sinema should be all in favor of programs that cut child poverty, make child care affordable and make education available earlier. Why wouldn’t she be cheering this bill?

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Then there is the Medicare drug proposal that would allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. This would save money — lots of it. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated, “CBO estimated over $450 billion in 10-year (2020-2029) savings from the Medicare drug price negotiation provision in the version of H.R. 3 in the 116th Congress, including $448 billion in savings to Medicare and $12 billion in savings for subsidized plans in the ACA marketplace and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.” If Manchin worries about federal deficits and spending, shouldn’t he be out front pushing for this item?

Likewise, the Guardian recounted: “A one-time progressive activist, Sinema campaigned on lowering drug prices in her 2018 Senate race, and she was still calling on Congress to address rising drug costs as recently as last year, boasting on her Senate website that she was fighting to ‘ensure life-saving drugs’ would be more affordable.” So she should be on board as well? Well, Sinema, the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Pharma, reportedly does not like this part of the bill. Arizona voters might consider such a reversal to be bait-and-switch.

As for the bill’s tax hikes, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy found that the plans to hike individual taxes on the superwealthy would have virtually no effect in this poor state. “In West Virginia, these tax increases would affect only 0.5 percent of all taxpayers, with 100 percent of the tax increases paid by the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers in the state,” the center found. Meanwhile, far more West Virginians would get tax relief from the plan: “The boost to the Child Tax Credit will benefit an estimated 346,000 children in West Virginia, dramatically reducing child poverty, while the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers will benefit an estimated 110,000 West Virginia workers.” Shouldn’t Manchin favor these tax revisions?

Similarly, if Sinema were listening to voters back home, she would be happy to sign onto the tax proposals. The Children’s Action Alliance reports on a poll from Hart and ALG Research: “Biden’s proposals to raise taxes on those making over $400,000 meet with wide approval (71% support) in Arizona, including his proposal to tax capital gains at the same rate as income from wages (61% support). Arizona voters believe that raising taxes on those earning $400,000 or more will help the economy by a 35-point margin.” In addition, “Increasing the corporate tax rate to 28% is embraced by 62% of Arizona voters, who also favor taxing foreign profits at 28% (66% support) and setting a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% (69% support).”

Finally, while it might make sense for a West Virginia senator to oppose green energy measures (although coal is a declining segment of the state’s economy), there is no excuse for Sinema to object to this aspect of the package. She has previously supported investment in solar energy — understandable for someone coming from a state that, as the Arizona Capitol Times reports, has experienced “significant growth in advanced energy jobs, with a recent industry report showing 69,000 jobs in the sector and a growth rate of 3.5%.”

Virtually everything in the Build Back Better plan would aid one or both of the states Manchin and Sinema represent. The package is popular overall, especially with Democrats. If cost of the package is the problem, then at least both holdouts should embrace the savings afforded by the Medicare drug provision. Unless they are simply out for attention or attempting to woo a sliver of right-wing voters and lobbyists back home (at the risk of alienating progressives), their opposition is inexplicable. No wonder progressive negotiators in the Senate and House haven’t heard much from them.