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What Joe Manchin doesn’t like about Build Back Better

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) leaves the Capitol on Dec. 15. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
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Sen. Joe Manchin III is willing to shoulder the White House’s, and the entire Democratic Party’s, ire to sink the Democrats’ social spending legislation.

Unlike Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has expressed a desire to get something passed, this weekend Manchin (D-W.Va.) shut the door fairly hard on President Biden’s spending plan. Now it doesn’t have enough votes to get through the Senate.

Why? Here’s what we know about what Manchin opposes in this legislation.

It costs too much

“Mammoth” is what he keeps calling it. Manchin almost single-handedly got liberal Democrats to lower the cost by trillions of dollars.

But at $2 trillion over the next decade, Manchin said, it was still just too much. He accused Democrats of hiding the true cost of the programs by proposing them for only a short amount of time while hoping a future Congress renews them.

“The American people deserve transparency on the true cost of the Build Back Better Act,” he said in a statement Sunday, in response to the White House’s statement blasting his decision not to support the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office is a nonpartisan agency that estimates how much proposed and existing legislation will cost American taxpayers. It’s the closest thing Congress has to a neutral arbiter on these matters. The CBO has analyzed several versions of the bill and essentially says it would add to the debt nominally. Manchin argues any amount is too much right now.

But the White House has argued the CBO score was also incomplete — that it was too conservative in calculating how much the government could make up by closing in on tax cheats.

How much the IRS could claw back in revenue is up for debate. It’s fair to say this bill is not, as the White House claims, fully paid for.

Now’s just not the right time

Manchin argues an injection of government spending would make inflation — set off by the pandemic, supply chain issues and government aid — even worse. A recent government report shows the cost of nearly everything is spiking at a rate not seen since the 1980s.

“Inflation is the biggest threat we have right now,” Manchin said in an interview Monday on Talkline West Virginia radio. On this, Manchin is echoing the main Republican attack on Build Back Better.

Economists can and do debate what impact more government spending would have on rising prices. The White House points to economists who say it would make things better in the long run. But no one seems to fully understand when inflation will subside.

Manchin has also cited the building omicron wave of the coronavirus as a reason not to spend more right now. He says there is too much uncertainty in the economy to inject trillions of new spending.

That’s a fundamentally different take in the legislation compared with the view of the rest of the Democratic Party, which says expanding the federal safety net is precisely what the economy needs right now.

Climate proposals

This fall, Manchin got the party to drop its marquee climate plan, a proposal to phase out coal plants. It threatened Biden’s efforts to make the United States carbon neutral as soon as possible. Now, he’s saying no to what would still be one of the only comprehensive pieces of climate legislation in the United States.

Manchin is chair of the Senate Energy Committee, which deals with climate change. He argued that the government shouldn’t get involved in changes already happening in the private sector.

What Manchin didn’t say was that he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from his family coal company. Only a small portion of that is in a blind trust, report The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish and Anna Phillips. (This is totally within the rule book of Congress, by the way.)

Manchin “doesn’t have the guts to stand up to powerful special interests,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Paid family leave and other family-focused items

In large part because of Manchin, Democrats already dropped a proposals for 12-week paid family leave and free community college from the legislation. (The bill passed the House in November.)

And they extended an expanded child tax credit — which has lifted millions of children out of poverty — for only another year. That credit expires entirely at the end of 2021, meaning millions of families won’t get any payments in January.

Manchin has opposed continuing the child tax credit as it is. He wants education and work requirements, anathema to many in his party.

The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein and Tyler Pager report that Manchin privately proposed to the White House a version of the bill that included hundreds of billions to fight climate change, as well as a proposal to expand Obamacare and create universal prekindergarten for 10 years. But it did not include continuing this expanded child tax credit.

These West Virginians would be affected if Manchin restricts who can get the expanded child tax credit

Biden isn’t popular right now

Manchin doesn’t come out and say this, but implicit in his criticism of the legislation is his belief that Build Back Better doesn’t answer voters’ immediate concerns.

It’s a fair point, according to public polling. As The Post’s Olivier Knox has pointed out, Biden’s policies — investing in infrastructure, providing free preschool, expanding Medicare — are popular, but most Americans don’t say it will address inflation.

Most Americans rate the economy as negative, despite rising wages and low unemployment.

And independents are turning away from Biden ahead of critical midterm elections.

As a Senate Democrat representing one of the most pro-Trump states in the nation, Manchin likes to say he is more in tune with this political dynamic than the rest of the Democratic Party. Yet some vulnerable House Democrats, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, have explicitly endorsed this legislation, suggesting they think it will help them win reelection next year.

This has been updated with the latest news.

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