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Opinion Manchin deals a devastating blow to Biden and to democracy

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) at the Capitol on Dec. 17. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)
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Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), first in an interview on Fox News Sunday and then in an extensive statement, appeared to deal a mortal blow to Build Back Better, the cornerstone of President Biden’s domestic agenda.

Despite Manchin’s many public hesitations about the legislation, Biden spent months promising Americans and his own party that he and the West Virginia senator were engaged in “productive discussions” and within reach of a deal. Manchin just ripped away that facade, proved progressives (who at first insisted on linking infrastructure and BBB) right for not trusting him, and did untold damage to the Democrats’ chances in 2022.

Manchin’s statement could have been drafted by Senate Republicans, who obtained a misleading Congressional Budget Office score that priced the bill at $4.5 trillion (as if the child tax credit would last 10 years) and claimed it would worsen inflation. Never mind that a raft of economists said the bill was paid for and would in the long run reduce inflationary pressures as it increased productivity. Characterizing BBB as an economically risky effort to “dramatically reshape our society,” Manchin painted the president of his own party as radical and out of touch.

As if that were not bad enough, Manchin also seemed to restate his opposition to changing the filibuster rules for the sake of voting rights. Given the onslaught of Republican efforts not only to suppress the Democratic base but also to booby-trap and sabotage the impartial administration of elections, the failure to make any headway here puts Democrats and democracy itself in a precarious position.

Lawmakers respond to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D- W.Va.) saying he ‘cannot vote’ for Democrats’ social and climate spending bill on Dec. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

It initially was hard to tell whether Biden, for all his vaunted negotiating skill, utterly misread his former Senate colleague or whether Manchin was never straight with the White House. The White House removed any doubt with a blistering retort. The White House press secretary released a statement, explaining:

Senator Manchin’s comments this morning on FOX are at odds with his discussions this week with the President, with White House staff, and with his own public utterances. Weeks ago, Senator Manchin committed to the President, at his home in Wilmington, to support the Build Back Better framework that the President then subsequently announced. Senator Manchin pledged repeatedly to negotiate on finalizing that framework “in good faith.”
On Tuesday of this week, Senator Manchin came to the White House and submitted—to the President, in person, directly — a written outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the same size and scope as the President’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities. . . . If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.

Rarely has a president publicly described a senator of his own party in such stark terms. The White House further challenged him: “Maybe Senator Manchin can explain to the millions of children who have been lifted out of poverty, in part due to the Child Tax Credit, why he wants to end a program that is helping achieve this milestone — we cannot.” The gloves are off, to put it mildly.

In any case, this body blow comes just a couple days after the White House assured that “Sen. Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan … announced in September.” That the blow came from a member of his own party makes it all that more devastating.

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Where does Biden go from here? On his domestic agenda, he might listen to Manchin, select a few of the priorities Manchin will accept and include a funding mechanism for 10 years. That might, for example, still include the child tax credit but not the green-energy provisions or the extension of Medicare to cover hearing. It might remove money for housing subsidies but leave in place a subsidy for child care for low-income parents. Whether it would include the money-saving measure to control prescription drug costs remains an open issue. And after dashing progressives’ hopes and failing to deliver on their priority, Biden might have a hard time securing their votes for any substitute bill.

But the greater concern remains voting rights. Contrary to reports from Democratic senators last week that Manchin was amenable to some filibuster changes, we now face the possibility he will refuse to budge even to pass his own reduced package of essential election reforms. Senate Democrats will need to regroup to determine whether Electoral Count Act modifications or anti-subversion measures (e.g., standards for audits, protections against removal of nonpartisan election figures) could induce Manchin to modestly alter the filibuster.

Manchin delivered a lump of coal to the White House. Now Biden’s administration, the Democrats’ hopes for 2022 and the fate of our democracy depend on the president’s ability to reconstruct an agenda he can actually deliver.