Manchin wrote, “There is no circumstance in which I would vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” He also said everyone should be “alarmed at how the budget reconciliation process is being used by both parties to stifle debate,” adding that reconciliation should not replace “regular order” in the Senate. “The time has come to end these political games,” he added, “and to usher in a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”
Biden has proposed an infrastructure package — using an expansive definition of infrastructure — that the White House says would cost $2.25 trillion. The money would be spent over eight years. To pay for it, the president has proposed raising taxes on corporations, though it would take 15 years of those tax increases to cover the cost. Coming soon is a second part of the package, focused on domestic issues and of a size rivaling the infrastructure portion, to be paid for through higher taxes on the wealthiest individuals. Eventually, the two pieces could end up as one big bill.
As he did during the debate over Biden’s nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief and economic stimulus package, Manchin has put himself directly in the path of the passage of the new plan. In a 50-50 Senate and thus with no votes to spare, any Democrat can do so. Other Democrats will likely have changes they would like to see as the package moves forward. But Manchin is the one who has made himself the center of attention.
The president has signaled his willingness to negotiate with Republicans and with Manchin. If the stimulus bill is any guide, the president soon will begin to meet with moderates from both parties to explore whether there is common ground on a subject — rebuilding the nation’s aging infrastructure — that has long enjoyed at least rhetorical support across the ideological spectrum.
Biden sat down with some Republicans at the beginning of the stimulus debate. The Republicans countered the president’s $1.9 trillion plan with a roughly $618 billion proposal. Biden concluded that he and the Republicans were far apart and didn’t believe that prolonged negotiations would change that. He moved on, corralled Democrats such as Manchin by satisfying their concerns and pushed the bill through on a party-line vote under the terms allowed by reconciliation. That is the model that many Democrats hope will be used on infrastructure.
Manchin is now very much on the minds of administration officials as they begin to develop their strategy to pass the infrastructure measure, with some discussions focused on what Manchin might want and how he might be accommodated. Substantively, he has not put down many markers, though he has said he could live with a 25 percent corporate tax rate, roughly in the middle of the current 21 percent rate and the 28 percent rate Biden has proposed. Right now, his is a process argument. But he will likely have more changes in the details of the plan, as well, and administration officials are prepared for that.
Meanwhile, fellow Democrats are trying to understand what political considerations might be motivating Manchin, beyond his stated preference for bipartisanship, and how, ultimately, that will affect his decision-making on infrastructure. When he writes, as he did, “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,” his colleagues note that there is much in the Biden plan that would be good for a state like West Virginia.
Manchin is testing the patience of some Democrats, but many recognize this is part of the price of working in an evenly divided Senate and they are reluctant to criticize him openly. They know that there is probably no other Democrat who could win a Senate race in West Virginia and that home-state considerations are important. So Manchin has some maneuvering room to try to show that his approach can still work, but it is not unlimited.
Manchin has made clear he prefers to try to get back to a time when that worked. In fact, that did work as recently as a few months ago, when Manchin and other moderates were the driving forces that helped enact a $900 billion package of economic assistance in the waning days of the Trump presidency. The difference is that, in that case, Democrats were prepared to vote for a package that would be signed by a Republican president.
Few people would disagree that it is better to gain bipartisan support, if possible, when enacting major legislative packages or changes. But in today’s polarized environment, and particularly with Republicans dug in against Biden’s agenda, the prospects for that are remote.
Even those Democratic senators who generally favor trying to find bipartisan compromise, Manchin notwithstanding, doubt there are anything close to 10 GOP votes for the kind of infrastructure package Biden has proposed and perhaps even fewer Republicans willing to vote to repeal or significantly roll back President Donald Trump’s tax cuts.
What other Democrats are asking is: What happens if Manchin’s efforts to find a bipartisan compromise prove to be a dead end? What will he do then? Democrats who closely read his op-ed say that, while he came out firmly against changing the filibuster, he left himself wiggle room on reconciliation. “I think he recognizes that this (reconciliation) is an existing feature of the Senate and would distinguish between that and changing the filibuster,” said a Democratic senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play.
What makes the infrastructure package different from the stimulus bill is that Biden is asking for enough revenue to pay for it, albeit on different timelines. That’s both good and risky. It’s good in the eyes of Democrats in that it negates criticism about the stimulus bill adding significantly to the deficit. It’s not so good in that it would put Democrats who are up for reelection in 2022 on the line as having voted strictly along party lines to raise taxes.
Right now both parts of the Biden package — the plan to rebuild infrastructure and the proposal to raise taxes on corporations and on the wealthiest Americans — are generally popular. If that holds, Democrats will be more willing to do with this package what they did with the stimulus bill, which is to enact it without Republican votes.
It was a surprise to many people that the size and most of the details of Biden’s stimulus bill remained intact. Whether that will be the case on this new initiative is a matter of debate, with the expectation that it may have to be shaved back in size if not in overall structure.
Democrats increasingly are of a mind that the most important thing for them is to enact as much of Biden’s agenda as possible — and the more ambitious the better. As another Democratic senator put it: “Passing something ambitious would be much better for our fortunes in 2022 than passing something that is not ambitious or not passing anything at all.”
That depends in large part on whether Manchin will be there in the end as part of a unified Democratic caucus in the Senate.