The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal lawmakers don’t want to talk about scaling back their ambitions to revive some of what Joe Manchin killed

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) are among the House lawmakers who warned that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) would not support many of the president’s priorities.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) are among the House lawmakers who warned that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) would not support many of the president’s priorities. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Liberals are furious.

Their hopes of enacting an expansive domestic policy bill focused on health care, education and climate change have been dashed. They blame Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), arguing he failed to keep his word to negotiate in good faith with the White House before announcing his opposition to the package on “Fox News Sunday.”

And they are in no mood, at the moment, to think about scaling back their policy ambitions in hopes of getting some part of what they want into law following Manchin’s proclamation that he “can’t get there” on President Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal.

“Why do we have to acquiesce to what members of another party think we should be doing, what so called moderates think we should be doing, what so called independents think we should be doing? All of that represents a status quo,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). “Our status quo is rooted in racism, sexism and classism, and us not passing Build Back Better or scaling it back dramatically, even more so than has already been done, is going to disproportionately harm people of color, women, the poor, children and seniors.”

What you need to know about Joe Manchin’s hold on the Democratic agenda

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)

The intense frustration emanating from the most liberal members of Congress adds an extra layer of complication for the White House and Democratic leaders who are scrambling to find a path forward to save some of the roughly $2 trillion domestic policy bill Manchin torpedoed over the weekend.

Whether liberals’ public pronouncements that they are done scaling back their priorities is just pique talking or a firm decision will be just as key to what the party can accomplish as whether Manchin comes back to the negotiating table.

Some, like Bowman, said they saw Manchin’s announcement coming back in November, when House leaders and Biden pushed House Democrats to enact a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill favored by moderates with the promise that the party would “get there” on the social policy and climate change bill.

Bowman and a handful of other liberals voted against the spending for roads, bridges and broadband, arguing it was their only leverage for keeping people like Manchin at the table.

Now, these lawmakers are taking an I-told-you-so stance.

“No one can really be promised a Manchin vote,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding that fellow Democrats had been “strung along” by the senator.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to project optimism Monday during an event in her hometown of San Francisco, noting that Democrats have to keep trying to find a way forward.

“Well, we never give up,” Pelosi said. “This will happen, it must happen, and we will do it as soon as we can. There are conversations that are ongoing, but we cannot walk away from this commitment. The Build Back Better is about transforming our society.”

Talks have begun on narrowing the scope of the roughly $2 trillion proposal in hopes of preventing a complete failure — and a list of broken promises to voters.

Manchin’s private offer to Biden included pre-K, climate money, Obamacare — but excluded child benefit

But liberal leaders said they don’t see much of a point in negotiating with Manchin, portraying him as untrustworthy and never clear about what he is willing to support.

Instead, they plan on pushing Biden to take unilateral action through executive orders.

“No one should think that we are going to be satisfied with an even smaller package that leaves people behind or refuses to tackle critical issues like climate change. That is why it is now incumbent on President Biden to keep his promise to us and to the American people by using the ultimate tool in his toolbox: the tool of executive actions in every arena immediately,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a call with reporters Monday.

She said the CPC’s executive board plans to discuss the issue before engaging with the White House. Among the ideas: canceling student debt owed to the government or keeping in place a pause on student loan payments put in place at the start of the pandemic; lowering the cost of medical supplies, such as insulin; and targeting fossil fuels to combat climate change.

But even if Biden were to aggressively use executive orders to implement liberal priorities, he would not be able to accomplish nearly as much as Congress could through legislation.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that while Biden is not hesitant to use the presidential power, “the benefit of legislation is obviously it makes it permanent.”

She added that liberals should not lose faith in the negotiations, telling reporters the president’s message to them is, “We need to work together to get this done, and he’s going to work like hell to get it done.”

Democratic bitterness, rage follow Manchin’s ‘no’ on Biden bill

Liberal leaders first want to see Manchin formally vote against the Build Back Better Act passed by the House last month so voters can hold him to account rather than allow him to “take the easy way out and announcing his position on Fox News,” one aide to a liberal member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that the Senate would vote on the bill.

“Neither that delay, nor other recent pronouncements, will deter us from continuing to try to find a way forward,” he wrote to his colleagues.

But Manchin has made clear he’s not worried about a floor vote or any backlash over his decision in West Virginia, a state Donald Trump won by almost 40 points in 2020, arguing that as a conservative Democrat from a red state, he’s not going to vote for policies unpopular back home.

“I think I still represent the centrist wing of a Democratic Party that has compassion but also has reasonability,” he said in the radio interview.

He also said liberals should stop pretending the party has big majorities in both chambers and can do whatever it wants.

The six members of the “Squad,” a group of younger representatives of color, have expressed particular exasperation with Manchin, portraying him as overly influenced by corporate America and noting that his family runs a coal business at a time when the party is trying to move the country away from fossil fuels.

“This has nothing to do with his constituents. This is about the corruption and self-interest of a coal baron,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted Sunday.

Manchin cites a blind trust to justify climate votes. But much income from his family’s coal company isn’t covered.

But the group is also directing blame at Democratic leaders for pushing the infrastructure bill through without first passing the Build Back Better agenda.

Last month, all six — Reps. Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Cori Bush (Mo.) — voted against the infrastructure bill. Their stance was criticized by some of their Democratic colleagues, including dozens in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, for not standing by the president at a critical decision point, according to several members who participated in an hours-long CPC meeting Biden called in to last month.

“Of course we have every right to be furious with Joe Manchin, but it’s really up to leadership and the Democratic Party who made the decision to get us to this juncture and how we’re going to move forward,” Ocasio-Cortez said Monday on MSNBC. “I think right now that Democratic leadership has a very large number of tools at their disposal, the president particularly, and it’s really about time that we take the kid gloves off and we start using them to govern for working families in this country.”

Bowman echoed that sentiment and said it was time for senior Democrats to start paying more attention to members who represent voters who put Biden in the White House rather than moderates from states or districts where he is less popular.

“That’s the question, do we have the respect of leadership throughout the House and Senate in the White House, as newer members of Congress, and is some of that subconscious discrimination, part of us not getting the respect we deserve even though we are duly elected members of Congress,” he said. “Manchin is exhibit A, him and what do you represent are the true problems of the Democratic Party, a party and a Congress anchored in the 1960s and ’70s and not evolving into the 21st-century, vibrant, multiracial economy we’re supposed to be.”

Some liberals who went along with the plan to pass the infrastructure bill, counting on Biden to deliver on their priorities, said they still have hope.

Asked whether she regrets building support to send the infrastructure bill to the president’s desk last month, Jayapal said it was a question that she’s “gone over in my head a million times.” Ultimately, she said, doing so kept negotiations with Manchin going.

“I don’t have a regret. I understand that different people can read this differently, but I really believe that had we not passed the infrastructure bill, that would have been the day that the senator said Build Back Better was dead,” she said.