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Biden still touts Build Back Better, but what does that mean?

As Biden travels the country urging support for his plan, there is no specific bill and talks have evaporated

President Biden speaks Thursday about a Great Lakes cleanup plan at the shipyards in Lorain, Ohio. (Daniel Lozada/Bloomberg)

To hear President Biden tell it, his Build Back Better plan is “close” to passing the Senate and delivering relief to Americans struggling with the cost of prescription drugs. He has talked this month of how it would cap child-care costs for many Americans and how utility companies are embracing its climate and energy initiatives.

But it’s not clear such a plan exists anymore, at least in any recognizable form. Behind the scenes, discussions between the White House and key senators on what was once a massive climate and social spending package have virtually evaporated. It’s far from evident what, if any, version of Biden’s once-sweeping proposal could pass this year and what it would include. Would it be a climate plan? A prescription drug initiative? A health-care bill?

According to Biden’s descriptions, it’s all of the above. Yet Biden has also conceded that the proposal will need to be broken into chunks after talks collapsed late last year, and that it is unlikely to include an extension of an expanded child-care tax credit. First lady Jill Biden recently acknowledged that two years of tuition-free community college is no longer part of it — a reality that congressional negotiators have understood for months.

Congress has in many ways moved on to other priorities, and Biden’s forthcoming Supreme Court nomination is expected to occupy the Senate’s attention for much of this spring. Yet Biden sometimes makes it sound as though Build Back Better is on the cusp of passage.

In Culpeper, Va., last week, Biden appeared with Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) to speak of cutting prescription drug costs. “In my Build Back Better legislation that, with Abigail’s leadership, passed in the House of Representatives, we can do that,” he said, adding, “Now we just have to get through the United States Senate — and we’re close.”

Democrats' climate plan languishes

During Thursday’s lunch of Senate Democrats attended by White House chief of staff Ron Klain and other top administration officials, the topic of Build Back Better barely surfaced, according to senators in attendance. Rather, the group focused on broad measures to help Americans cut costs, such as a temporary suspension of the gas tax.

A month after the House passed a version of Build Back Better last fall, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) came out against the package. With the Senate divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and the GOP united against the package, Manchin’s support was, and remains, critical to any deal.

Manchin said this week that “there have been no formal talks for quite a while” on the proposal.

Another centrist senator whose vote is far from certain is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). One official familiar with the situation said there has been no substantive outreach from the administration to Sinema about resuscitating any version of the package, which once stood around $2 trillion. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private dynamics.

To some, the president risks sounding like a salesman without a product.

“There’s been a risk from the beginning in setting our sights so high,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “That’s been a built-in risk from the beginning that we decided not to play small ball, that the president decided that this was a moment of crisis for democracy and that required him to go big for American families. That does present the risk of appearing like you got much less than you asked for.”

But, Murphy added: “I think the president needs to continue to talk about this. I think it’d be a mistake to pivot off of a theme that he’s been talking about for a year — putting money into the hands of American families — just because it’s hard to get it done here.”

At times, Biden and the White House use the phrase “Build Back Better agenda” to promote his plans in a larger sense, similar to the way “New Deal” captured the sweep of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legislative program. At other moments, it is clear Biden is talking specifically about the plan that once totaled $1.9 trillion.

Asked this week about Biden’s intent in repeatedly bringing up Build Back Better, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to the rising costs of goods and services. Inflation threatens to hurt Democrats in this year’s midterm elections, and after initially calling it a “transitory” problem, the Biden administration is now acknowledging more directly the toll high prices are taking on families.

Sometimes the White House appears to be rebranding Build Back Better as an inflation-fighting plan.

“The president continues to bring it up, because, as we talk about the impact of inflation, which most people experience in their daily lives as rising costs, one of the ways that we can address that is by passing legislation that will help lower costs for Americans, whether it’s child care or health care or the cost of prescription drugs,” Psaki said.

As for the prospects of resurrecting Build Back Better, Psaki said that the White House is “continuing to work in lockstep and in partnership with a range of senators. And they’re having their own discussions about moving these efforts forward.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that “the president and his team are working hard with a wide range of lawmakers on cutting costs for American families, including with regard to prescription drugs and energy,” echoing Biden’s recent focus on climate and drug costs as two major elements of any plan. Bates also stressed that the plan would “reduce the deficit.”

In the absence of direct talks between the White House and pivotal senators, a handful of committee chairmen have stepped in at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to engage directly with Manchin on what type of scaled-back package he might support, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Manchin has signaled that he does not want to negotiate such a bill in earnest until at least March. To appease one of his demands — that any package should move through the regular legislative process — the chairmen are tentatively planning hearings in coming weeks on different parts of a new social spending package, the people said.

The group includes Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Finance Committee; Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee; and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who leads the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Wyden said that, for the moment, he is not caught up in the exact timing of a bill. “What I’m telling everybody is: 'Look, I’d like to have this done sooner or later,’ ” Wyden said. “So I’m just going to be focused on building the case.”

The House-passed version of Build Back Better would make record investments in combating climate change, and its collapse has unnerved environmental activists and put pressure on Biden to find other ways to demonstrate that he is taking action to protect the environment and fight global warming.

Biden traveled to Ohio on Thursday to promote the bipartisan infrastructure law he signed last year, and during his speech, he highlighted the $1 billion in funding from the law that will go toward cleaning and restoring environmentally degraded sites around the Great Lakes.

Manchin, when he pulled out of negotiations with the White House on Build Back Better last year, voiced concerns about the cost of the package, its climate provisions, its impact on the deficit and its effect on rising inflation. This week, he said he still sees factors that give him pause.

“I saw inflation come a long time ago. I knew the geopolitical unrest was there, and it’s now heightened more than ever, and covid was uncertain,” Manchin said. “So all these uncertainties, we’re saying, wait a minute. This is too much.”

“No one seems to have a timetable, really,” he added, pointing to other congressional priorities, such as a government funding bill, as more urgent.

Beyond the challenges of passing a bill in a midterm election year — and doing so under strict Senate rules limiting what can be passed with a simple majority — looms another question: What should Democrats call the plan now?

Some, such as Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), have suggested rebranding the measure and killing off the “Build Back Better” name for good because it has become associated with Biden’s sweeping social agenda that at one point approached $6 trillion before being whittled down. Psaki has said the White House is open to renaming the package as long as some version of it gets passed.

“I don’t think it matters what you call it, and I think that the substance of the bill is deeply popular, and so I think it’s good for [Biden] to be out there talking about it,” Schatz said. “What you name it is secondary to putting together the bill and getting 51 votes.”

But Biden does not seem ready to give up the Build Back Better name just yet.

“17 Nobel Prize winners in economics say the Build Back Better Agenda will ease longer-term inflationary pressures,” the president tweeted on Thursday. “We can get this done.”