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From charm offensive to scorched earth: How Biden’s fragile alliance with Manchin unraveled

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) heads back to his office after a Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on Dec. 16.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) heads back to his office after a Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on Dec. 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WILMINGTON, Del. — As Democrats feuded over the size and scope of their sweeping social spending proposal this fall, President Biden invited Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va) to his home here for breakfast and a personal tour of the property he built.

The October visit, according to a Democrat familiar with the day’s events, was part of a personal charm offensive by Biden to finally win over the man widely seen as the main obstacle to once-in-a-generation legislation to curtail climate change, and expand health care and education benefits, among other longtime priorities.

On Sunday, the charm offensive turned to scorched earth.

Hours after Manchin abruptly delivered what many saw as a potentially fatal blow to one of the centerpieces of Biden’s agenda with his declaration that he “just can’t” support it, White House press secretary Jen Psaki unleashed a blistering 712-word written statement accusing him of making a “sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position” and calling his comments a “breach of his commitments” to Biden and Democratic lawmakers, if he has decided to end negotiations.

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 remarkable exchange reflected an abrupt turnabout between the two men, who had spent the first year of Biden’s presidency engaging in a delicate yet largely cordial alliance as the conservative Democratic senator wielded decisive power in the 50-50 Senate.

While some White House officials suggested Biden could still work with Manchin, it was unclear late Sunday whether that alliance could be repaired, or if the sour feelings would impact other issues where Manchin plays a central role.

His support is also key to Democrats’ languishing efforts to pass voting rights protections as Republican state legislatures impose new restrictions. Passing such legislation with a simple majority would require Manchin signing off on a Senate rules change that would bypass its 60-vote threshold for most legislation.

“I can understand the frustration, but in a 50-50 Senate you are going to need his vote on lots of other issues,” said Howard Wolfson, an adviser to former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. “It’s critical to keep the relationship intact and the lines of communication open.”

The breakdown comes at an especially difficult moment for Biden, whose struggle to fight the pandemic, rising inflation and supply chain problems were already gathering into a year-end maelstrom.

Now he also faces an uproar once again in his own party.

Democratic infighting was on full display on Sunday, undercutting efforts to project unity ahead of what many in the party privately believe will be an electoral wipeout. And liberal leaders who hoped to realize their longtime policy goals and campaign on the initiatives in the social spending plan were furious.

Manchin says he ‘cannot vote’ for $2 trillion package

Most of the anger was directed squarely at Manchin.

“I think he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia to tell ’em why he doesn’t have the guts to take on the drug companies to lower the cost of prescription drugs, why he is not prepared to expand home health care,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“Astonishment” was how one Democratic senator described the mood among colleagues, who the senator said were on the phone with one another on Sunday.

Manchin’s decision to publicly oppose the spending plan came after a week of conversations with the White House, which included at least two personal phone calls between the president and the senator, as well as several follow-ups with White House aides.

On Tuesday, Manchin “came to the White House and submitted — to the President, in person, directly — a written outline” for a bill, according to Psaki’s statement Sunday, “that was the same size and scope as the President’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities. While that framework was missing key priorities, we believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all.”

Two days later, Manchin huddled on the Senate floor for long conversations with Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who had each advocated for major programs that had been included in the version of the bill passed weeks ago by the House and that were at risk by Manchin’s opposition.

But 24 hours later, the White House had made clear the bill would not be happening in 2021, and Manchin was no longer having lengthy floor conversations with Democrats. He instead turned his attention to Republicans, whom he is trying to sell on potential changes to Senate rules.

Manchin made up his mind only in the past day or two, according to a person familiar with the situation, concluding he had exhausted all negotiating options with the White House.

The senator also did not seem pleased with a written statement from Biden on Thursday evening that effectively pushed the negotiations into next year, which had referenced Manchin multiple times.

Manchin delivered the news on Fox News Sunday. He then issued a written statement citing concerns about the costs of the bill, its climate provisions, its impact on the deficit and the risks of enacting it amid rising inflation. Manchin also offered a sharp critique of his party’s governing philosophy, stating, “My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face.”

The extraordinary White House statement on Manchin

Many Democrats were caught off guard.

“I was surprised,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Biden’s chief ally in the Senate, said in an interview Sunday. He cautioned that he hadn’t yet spoken with Manchin following his Fox interview, but said: “This is a sharp departure from what he was saying to many of his colleagues and to the president, just this week.”

Coons added of Manchin: “I know he is still a Democrat because he believes in doing things that help working people, and I remain optimistic there is still a path forward. But this was a surprise and a disappointment.”

Rather than seeking to defuse hostilities as some Democrats had hoped, the White House lashed out at Manchin, issuing the written statement from Psaki rebutting Manchin’s concerns point by point, and concluded that if he walks away from the talks, he would be breaking his word to Biden.

“Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground,” Psaki said in the statement.

Her words were highly unusual for a White House that for months had been restrained in its comments about Manchin and studiously avoided revealing details about negotiations over fears about upsetting the dynamic. And they were striking coming from a top aide to a president who has prided himself on his ability to forge compromise with lawmakers.

The statement, which Biden approved, was also deeply personal, referencing the day Manchin visited Biden in Delaware. Weeks ago, Psaki said, Manchin committed to Biden “at his home in Wilmington, to support the Build Back Better framework that the President then subsequently announced.”

Both the White House and Senate Democratic leadership were informed ahead of time about what Manchin would say on Sunday, according to three people familiar with the conversations. But two of those people, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private interactions or to speak more candidly, said it was a senator’s staffer, not Manchin himself, who made the call to the White House about 30 minutes in advance of the Fox appearance.

Biden did not appear in public here in Wilmington on Sunday. He kept a low profile at home this weekend, going to church on Saturday morning on the anniversary of the death of his first wife and young daughter in a 1972 car crash, then staying out of public view.

Manchin ‘no’ vote on Build Back Better undercuts Biden

Democrats on Sunday began contemplating the far-reaching consequences. The social spending bill would make historic investments in curtailing global warming, expanding Medicare benefits and offering access to prekindergarten for all American children, among other things.

Now there are new questions about how or even if Biden will be able to deliver on any of those fronts, all at a moment when the president and his party had initially hoped to reflect on a productive year and gear up for the midterms.

In particular, the possibility of no legislative action on climate change sent a shudder through a party that has long been demanding a bill that would seek to aggressively combat rising temperatures and felt that it was finally in position to do so, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress. A year rocked by extreme weather has only heightened the urgency to act.

“Major climate and clean energy provisions of the Build Back Better Act have largely been negotiated, scored for 10 years and financed,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said Sunday. “Let’s pass these provisions now. We cannot let this moment pass. Americans are vulnerable right now.”

Administration officials on Sunday started searching for alternative avenues to resuscitate the social spending plan Biden has put at the center of his agenda. White House officials on Sunday were in touch with Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the center-left New Democrat Coalition, about the group’s proposal to fund fewer programs for a longer period of time, according to an aide to the group.

But it was not immediately clear to many Democrats what the path ahead will be. And although Psaki said the White House would continue to press Manchin to be “true to his word,” and Manchin promised to “continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address the needs of all Americans,” Sunday’s extraordinary exchanges signaled a recognition on both sides that the large-scale compromise Biden has long sought is, in all likelihood, no longer possible.

Kim reported from Washington. Michael Scherer, Mike DeBonis and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.