The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Presto! Manchin’s party of one makes the Democrats’ program disappear.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill on June 7. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

Democrats don’t control Congress. Joe Manchin does.

Yes, Manchin is nominally a Democratic senator from West Virginia. But for two years, he has effectively set up shop as a party of his own. Repeatedly, he engaged in protracted negotiations with Democratic leaders, seemed to agree to a series of specific proposals, and then walked away.

President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have tried to be respectful, despite Manchin’s complaints about White House expressions of exasperation last year over his elusive negotiating style. Party leaders know that, in a 50-50 Senate, nothing can happen without him.

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In the wake of Manchin’s decision last year to blow up Biden’s Build Back Better program, Schumer spent weeks trying to get his longtime colleague’s agreement on a legislative package that would give their putatively shared party some achievements to crow about while campaigning this fall.

Manchin wanted deficit reduction. Schumer gave it to him. Manchin expressed a willingness to achieve that end by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Schumer gave him that, cutting away any tax changes to which Manchin objected.

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Manchin shot down many tough moves against fossil fuels but seemed prepared early last week to support $300 billion to $350 billion in clean-energy incentives.

Then, it all went up in smoke on Thursday, to the fury of many of Manchin’s Democratic colleagues as well as climate activists. Manchin cited inflation as his rationale for refusing to act now. On Friday, he insisted that he wasn’t walking away completely, just kicking the can down the road, to the fall, while he monitored the inflation problem.

But there’s not much road left in this legislative session, and history suggests there’s no reason to believe Manchin would be any more ready to deal in September than he is now.

Manchin left Democrats with an impossible choice — and many of his colleagues enraged. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) charged Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Manchin is “intentionally sabotaging the president’s agenda.”

The complexities of Senate rules mean that Democrats might get only one chance at a reconciliation bill that could pass with a bare majority. Do they roll the dice and wait until September, hoping to get new revenue and climate investments? Or do they secure all they can now to expand health coverage — which Manchin says he’s willing to do — knowing that Manchin’s “wait, wait, I won’t tell you” negotiating method could create yet another impasse?

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After a year of holding up Biden’s program and shrinking it almost beyond recognition, Manchin owes his colleagues and the country more than another dose of dilatory vagueness.

With Manchin, characteristically, refusing to give his party any concrete assurances that he would support a broader bill, Democrats have no alternative but to prepare expansive health-care legislation. Manchin has said that he supports constraining prescription drug prices and some version of the health insurance subsidies expanded last year.

After everything he has put his colleagues through, the least Manchin owes them is a more robust health-care bill than he has offered. Congress should extend the enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies for more than the two years Manchin has offered. Without action, premium costs could soar for some 13 million people. On a similar timeline, the bill should also close the coverage gap in the 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

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The gap, which deprives some 2.2 million Americans of health insurance, is a particular outrage in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the right to abortion.

As 38 House Democrats from the non-expansion states pointed out in a letter released on Friday, this uninsured group includes 800,000 women of reproductive age. And 10 of the 12 states that have refused to expand Medicaid either already have or are likely to enact bans or severe restrictions on abortion.

In other words, in the very places where low-income women will most need health care, they will be denied help to obtain it. Those who call themselves “pro-life” should find this disconnect indefensible. Politicians who support reproductive rights, including Biden and Schumer, should do all they can to stand up for these women.

Without mentioning Manchin in a statement issued on Friday, Biden was quick to make clear that he viewed any further discussions with the Senate’s leading goalpost-mover as a dead end. The president said he would now use “strong executive action” to encourage a transition to clean energy and urged Congress to get a health-care bill to his desk by August.

Serious health-care legislation would be an achievement, but Biden and most Democrats had once hoped for a whole lot more. With Republicans determined to block most of what Biden wanted, the Party of Manchin ruled. Or, rather, it was content to negotiate and negotiate until almost everything on the table disappeared.

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