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Opinion Joe Manchin isn’t the only obstacle to Build Back Better

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) heads back to his office on Capitol Hill on Dec. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Contrary to popular belief, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is not single-handedly blocking President Biden’s transformative Build Back Better agenda. He has the help of every single Republican senator, not one of whom will even engage in negotiations about the package.

That is not to make any excuses whatsoever for Manchin, who betrayed his party and its leader Sunday when he announced (on Fox News, no less) that he “cannot vote to continue with” the legislation. As recently as last week, Manchin had pledged to keep working with Biden to modify the nearly $2 trillion bill, which provides much-needed aid to families and fights climate change, among other initiatives.

Manchin’s back must be sore from moving the goal posts so often. His latest complaint seems to be that the bill wouldn’t be fully paid for if all its social spending were extended for a full 10 years. That wouldn’t be a problem, however, if Manchin hadn’t objected to the modest tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals that Biden previously proposed.

The White House issued an excoriating statement, noting that Manchin had hand-delivered his proposal for a reshaped Build Back Better bill to Biden last Tuesday and had “promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach … common ground.” Press secretary Jen Psaki called Manchin’s Fox News statement “a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”

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)

Other Democrats were less restrained. Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a centrist who represents a swing district, called Manchin’s diktat “unacceptable.” Progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), reminded everyone they had been warning all along that Manchin would pull the rug out from under the legislation.

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But the star of The Joe Manchin Show is hardly the only obstacle. Each one of the 50 Republicans in the Senate is equally responsible for the fact that Build Back Better has not reached Biden’s desk.

If Democrats had a bigger majority, they couldn’t be held hostage by Manchin or by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — or by any other Democratic senator who might want to derail the bill. It is actually remarkable that Biden and the Democrats, working with zero margin for error, have been able to accomplish so much this year, including confirmation of 40 federal judges, the most for any first-year president since Ronald Reagan.

I doubt Manchin will switch parties and become a Republican, since he would instantly revert to being a bit player with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) running the show as majority leader. Manchin could conceivably become an independent and continue to caucus with the Democrats, but that wouldn’t materially change the situation.

Karen Tumulty: Sen. Joe Manchin's position on Build Back Better reflects the reality of West Virginia politics

In the short term, Biden and the Democrats have two options. They could bring one or more Republicans over to their side on Build Back Better, which seems unlikely, given that the GOP has decayed into a cult of personality at the altar of former president Donald Trump, in thrall to his whims and hallucinations. Or they could spend a few days venting their justified anger at Manchin and then get back to negotiating with him, on whatever his terms might be on any given day.

There are, after all, items in the Build Back Better package that Manchin desperately needs. For example, the bill extends at current rates the special excise tax that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays benefits to coal miners disabled by the disease. Absent congressional action, the tax will be cut by more than half on Dec. 31. I wonder how Manchin will explain that to West Virginia voters.

Longer term, if Democrats don’t want to shrink their ambitions to suit Manchin, they need to win a bigger majority in the Senate — and keep their slim majority in the House. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, this is not impossible. But it won’t be easy.

James Downie: Manchin's rebuff of Build Back Better is the latest failure of Democrats playing soft

Progressive Democrats are going to have to continue being patient and pragmatic, as they have been all year. Moderate Democrats and Biden are going to have to put even more pressure on Manchin and Sinema, not just to support much-needed social spending but also to pass voting rights legislation that protects our democracy, even if it means finding a way around the Senate filibuster.

Democrats across the spectrum are going to have to stop talking so much about what they can’t or won’t do — and instead talk about what they have already done. And if necessary, galling as it might be, they may have to settle for a pared-down Build Back Better package that funds fewer programs over a longer span.

Democrats are doing much; Republicans are doing nothing. That’s the message to take into the midterms.

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