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Opinion The child tax credit is a huge win for Democrats. Will Manchin let it expire?

Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)
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Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer is pushing for passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better package by Christmas. The New York Democrat wants this done for obvious reasons, but he also has another pressing motive: If BBB doesn’t pass, the child tax credit, which currently ensures that most American families get a monthly check, will expire.

In a year chock full of follies and disappointments of all kinds, letting the child tax credit expire would stand out as a remarkably terrible outcome.

It’s not just that the credit has proven a revolutionary policy change that has dramatically slashed child poverty. It’s also that it has managed to unify Democrats, amid a year of factional infighting, in a way few other policies have. What’s more, this policy presents a chance to be a defining legacy item for the Democratic Party of the future.

Squandering this opportunity seems unthinkable. Yet here we are.

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Once again, the main culprit is Sen. Joe Manchin III. The West Virginia Democrat is meeting with Biden on Monday, where he’s expected to air serious concerns about BBB, in particular that various of its programs (the child tax credit, universal pre-K, expanded access to health care and much more) sunset prematurely, at different times.

Manchin sees this as evidence that its “true cost” is being concealed, since there will be pressure to extend the programs. That’s nonsense — the bill’s “true cost” is whatever spending it calls for, and any extensions must be approved by future Congresses — but this is what Manchin is saying.

The BBB package would extend the expanded child tax credit for another year. The credit was expanded to lower income families as part of the covid-19 rescue package that passed earlier this year, and it now sends up to $300 per month to most families with children, beginning to phase out at higher incomes.

If BBB does not pass by the end of the year, that expansion of the credit will expire. That would be awful, both substantively and politically.

For one thing, amid a year of intense factional fighting among Democrats, the credit was one policy that could unite them. It has a long pedigree as something championed by both progressives and moderates in the party.

Indeed, moderate House Democrats, including ones in difficult districts, see the credit as beneficial to their reelection hopes, putting them in sync with progressives who see it as a plus for the party overall.

Note that Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who heads the moderate New Democrat Coalition, is sounding the alarm to her party about the credit expiring if BBB isn’t done this year. As DelBene told Politico: “I want to make sure everybody’s keenly aware there are consequences of waiting.”

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg is even more blunt about the damage Manchin could end up doing.

“Given the broad support of the child tax credit in the Democratic family, and that it has already been successfully implemented, it’s hard to believe that a single senator would force a process to allow this program, of all programs, to expire in the coming days,” Rosenberg told me. “From a policy and political vantage point it seems reckless.”

The child tax credit is good politics for Democrats in all kinds of ways. It has great promise as a weapon against child poverty, but it also disproportionately benefits rural, nonmetropolitan areas, helping diffuse attacks on the party as the redoubt of coastal elites.

And the expanded child tax credit highlights GOP opposition to helping ordinary Americans with great clarity: It’s a pro-family policy, yet Republicans uniformly oppose its current expansion.

Interestingly, this whole affair doesn’t map neatly on to conventional battle lines in our politics. Not only does this Democratic policy help boost red state America; here is a case where Manchin’s opposition threatens and angers moderate and centrist Democrats as much as progressives.

“It really comes down to Manchin against the world,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, told me.

On top of all this, Hammond notes, the child tax credit has the potential to become a defining pillar for the Democratic Party, in a manner perhaps similar to Social Security in the last century.

“Letting this program lapse is squandering a chance for the Democratic Party to cement a lasting legacy,” Hammond said.

If the expanded child tax credit expires and BBB passes early next year, its payments can be made retroactively. But still, the headlines about its expiration seem imperative to avoid (another way Democrats are really at Manchin’s mercy). And then there’s the worst case scenario: If BBB doesn’t pass and it expires, it’s hard to overstate what a terrible loss that would be.

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