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Joe Manchin’s moving target on Biden’s spending bills

In 2021, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) changed his top line spending number for President Biden’s agenda more than half a dozen times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Congressional Democrats face several hurdles to passing the remainder of President Biden’s economic agenda when they return to Washington next week. And perhaps none looms larger than the Democratic senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin III.

Unlike Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), whose position on Biden’s reconciliation spending plan has remained unclear because of her lack of public statements, Manchin’s position on the plan has often seemed like a moving target because of his public statements.

Over the past 10 months, Manchin has suggested that he could support 10-year infrastructure spending plans ranging from $1 trillion to $4 trillion and has given conflicting signals on whether he could support deficit spending to fund them.

What does infrastructure package’s passing mean for the Democrats’ bigger social spending bill?

Before Biden’s social spending program was unveiled, Manchin told CNN on Jan. 10 that Democrats should look at spending $2 trillion or $3 trillion on infrastructure. Nine days later, Manchin told a West Virginia television station that he could support “$2, $3, $4 trillion over a 10-year period on infrastructure.”

Democrats have now spent $1.2 trillion on a bipartisan infrastructure plan that the House signed off on last week, while still pursuing a separate spending bill, under the reconciliation process.

On June 27, Manchin told ABC News that he would be willing to spend up to $2 trillion on Biden’s reconciliation plan, as long as it did not add to the national debt. On July 1, he told Fox News that he would never support $4 trillion to 6 trillion in new spending.

Fourteen days after Democrats unveiled their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, Manchin privately set a top line of $1.5 trillion for the plan with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). But days later, Manchin did not immediately shoot down the $3.5 trillion top line.

“Well, they’re saying it’s all paid for,” Manchin told CBS News on Aug. 1 when asked about the $3.5 trillion proposal. “Now, if it’s all paid for, you look at it in a different light, okay? There’s a lot of great things in there.”

By Sept. 12, Manchin said that he was a “hard no” on the $3.5 trillion proposal and that Democrats would use “some dynamic scoring” on the reconciliation plan, “but let’s be responsible and reasonable about it.”

(Republicans and Democrats used dynamic scoring in their budget projections for the bipartisan infrastructure plan, and Democrats previously criticized Republicans for using dynamic scoring to claim that the 2017 tax cuts would not add to the deficit.)

On Sept. 30, Manchin reiterated his top line of $1.5 trillion, before confirming Oct. 28 that Democrats had increased the top line to $1.75 trillion.

Manchin’s office declined to comment on his shifting numbers, but there are some valid reasons for the numbers changing. Since March, Biden has spent more than $3 trillion on coronavirus and infrastructure legislation, which is roughly consistent with Manchin’s calls in January to spend between $2 trillion and $4 trillion on infrastructure — depending on whether the coronavirus bill would be considered infrastructure. Whether Manchin will ultimately support Democrats’ latest proposal remains to be seen.

Three days after confirming that Democrats negotiated a top line of $1.75 trillion, Manchin appeared to suggest that was not necessarily his top-line number, after all.

“As more of the real details outlined in the basic framework are released, what I see are shell games, budget gimmicks that make the real cost of the so-called $1.75 trillion dollar bill estimated to be almost twice that amount if the full time is run out, if you extended it permanently, and that we haven’t even spoken about,” Manchin said Nov. 1. “This is a recipe for economic crisis.”