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Opinion It’s time to entertain the possibility that the Build Back Better bill won’t pass

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speaks to media members on Dec. 13. He has expressed skepticism about the Build Back Better bill. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

Most pundits seem to be operating under the assumption that President Biden’s Build Back Better program will eventually become law. After all, it would be very unusual for a Congress controlled by the president’s party to reject his first major domestic proposal.

But given developments in the past week, it might be time to start seriously considering the chance that BBB is DOA.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has long been the primary obstacle to BBB’s passage. He represents an energy-producing state, so he has a different view on the bill’s climate provisions than most Democrats. West Virginia also is now staunchly Republican at all levels and voted for former president Donald Trump by 39 points in 2020. To have any hope of reelection, Manchin has to show his constituents that he is fighting hard for them.

His comments at a Wall Street Journal online event show how hard it will be for him to agree to anything that the rest of his party will back. He complained that House Democrats had shrunk the cost of the bill primarily by creating artificial expiration dates for the host of programs they have crammed into the package. And he noted that Congress has rarely adhered to dates like these in the past, saying, “If we keep sending checks, it will be hard to stop the checks.” He reiterated those thoughts Monday, telling reporters that “whatever plan it will be” should be done for 10 years without potentially artificial expiration dates.

Manchin also continued to emphasize the risk that inflation plays in his calculus. He noted that the average West Virginian drives 50 miles a day for work, making inflation particularly problematic for his constituents. And he complained that Congress had already appropriated $5.4 trillion this year between the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more than what was spent in inflation-adjusted dollars for World War II and the Marshall Plan combined. Yet, “no one wants to stop and take a breath,” Manchin said. He, for one, clearly wants to take a deep breath.

His concerns were documented by last week’s Congressional Budget Office analysis, which showed BBB’s cost would rise dramatically if major programs included did not expire on schedule. The CBO analysis showed that if Manchin’s fears were realized and the BBB programs were effectively made permanent, those extensions would add $3 trillion to the nation’s deficit over the next decade. Those numbers were “very sobering,” he said on Monday.

It’s theoretically easy to meet Manchin’s bottom line by stripping most of the items out of the bill and focusing on one or two large programs. Advocates are pushing hard to make the expanded child tax credits permanent before the month end, when the current credit expires. That may be attractive to Manchin, but doing so would add nearly $1.6 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. That’s more than the entire amount of new revenue the CBO estimated in November that BBB’s tax hikes would raise.

It would also run afoul of what the bulk of Democrats want from the bill. Progressives have clearly stated all year that they expect a transformational package. That means going as far as possible on a host of issues at once, which is why BBB expands the child tax credit and creates universal pre-K and expands Obamacare subsidies and many other things. They have been willing to compromise thus far primarily on the overall cost, which is why the bill that passed the House has so many programmatic expirations. They have not been willing to admit that there isn’t a Senate majority for a transformational bill. Instead, they have been ramping up the pressure on Manchin to go along with the party majority.

That’s not something Manchin is willing to do, per all his public statements. He said last week that “this is not the best job I’ve ever had . . . I’m not going to sell my soul for this.” He said he was “not a Washington Democrat,” and implied that he would leave the Democratic caucus if asked. For him to cave now would require a massive act of self-abasement that would almost surely end his long political career.

Democrats thus face the specter of progressives’ irresistible force meeting Manchin’s immovable object. That clash looks increasingly likely, and the resultant explosion could easily blow up BBB along with it.