The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) walks through the U.S. Capitol last week. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A previous version of this article said incorrectly that President Biden and Sen. Manchin spoke by phone on Monday night. The conversation was on Sunday night, according to two people with knowledge of the call.

The White House vowed Monday to “work like hell” to get President Biden’s $2 trillion social policy overhaul through Congress following the bombshell announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Sunday that he could no longer support the president’s signature legislation.

But despite efforts by various Democrats to signal that the bill could be revived in the new year, Monday saw evidence of fissures and retrenchment, as Manchin complained that he’d been badgered by fellow Democrats and liberals accused him of betrayal. His cooperation is crucial in an evenly divided Senate where every Democratic vote is needed to change the country’s health-care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to echo the most scathing assertions about Manchin by his congressional colleagues, but she would not say whether Biden still trusted the senator. Her tone was less accusatory than her blistering response a day earlier, when she called Manchin’s unexpected rejection of the Build Back Better bill a “breach of his commitments.”

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)

Psaki sought to walk a fine line, appearing to leave the door open to further discussion by saying that Biden and Manchin “share fundamental values.” She added: “They’re longtime friends. That has not changed.”

What Manchin doesn’t like about Build Back Better

Liberals were less diplomatic, in part because many supported Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package with the understanding that Manchin in exchange would vote for some version of the Build Back Better bill, which includes provisions on climate, universal pre-K, an extended child tax credit and other social programs.

During a morning television appearance Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) accused Manchin of a “betrayal of working families across the country” and said his announcement was “an egregious breach of the trust of the president.”

The White House insisted that despite the furor, the bill will ultimately pass.

“What’s most on the president’s mind is the risk of inaction,” Psaki said. “And if we do not act to get this legislation done and the components in it, not only will costs and prices go up for the American people, but also we will see a trajectory in economic growth that is not where we want it to be.”

Biden and Manchin talked by phone Sunday night, according to two people with knowledge of the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. One of the people said that the talk was cordial and that both men signaled they would try to work on a new deal next year. The conversation was first reported by Politico.

How the fragile Biden-Manchin alliance unraveled

Adding to Democrats’ frustration at Manchin’s unexpected comment Sunday — that “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation” — was that he made it on Fox News, which many consider hostile to their party.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that he would hold a vote of the full Senate early next year on the Build Back Better bill regardless of Manchin’s position.

Although the bill cannot pass without Manchin’s support — all 50 Senate Republicans steadfastly oppose it — Schumer said a vote would put every senator on the record. In a “Dear Colleague” letter citing Manchin by name, Schumer said the Senate would vote on the bill so that “every Member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.”

He added, “We will keep voting on it until we get something done.”

Schumer’s vow to hold a vote on the bill echoed a call by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who said that Manchin should have to vote publicly and that he would “have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia” about his opposition.

Democrats engaged in a flurry of private conversations Monday about whether there was a way to salvage the bill by paring it back further. It has already shrunk considerably in deference to concerns from Manchin and other centrists.

For now at least, Manchin appears dug in, as he signaled during an appearance on the MetroNews radio station in West Virginia. Manchin said that he had been urging his colleagues to put the bill to a vote and that Democrats overestimated their ability to get him on board.

“I’m not blaming anybody,” he said. “I knew where they were, and I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it, because they figured, ‘Surely, dear God, we can move one person — surely we can badger and beat one person up, surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough [that] they’ll just say: “I’ll go for anything. Just quit.” ’ ”

Manchin, who represents a conservative state that Biden lost to President Donald Trump by a large margin, hinted that he had little political reason to submit to such pressure. “Well, guess what, I’m from West Virginia,” he said. “I’m not where they’re from and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.”

Manchin also complained about public pressure from White House staffers, saying, “They put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable.” Some Democrats saw that as a reference to a White House statement last week suggesting that Manchin’s objections were the main obstacle to the bill’s passage.

Asked if he saw a way forward — including breaking up the bill into smaller measures — Manchin complained about the legislative process surrounding the bill, particularly what he said was a lack of scrutiny by congressional committees.

Manchin proposal offered climate and pre-K but no child credit

The variety of Democratic responses to Manchin reflected his role as both a frequent holdout from the party consensus and someone whose vote they need not just to pass bills but often to confirm Cabinet secretaries, judges and perhaps one day a Supreme Court justice.

At a news conference in San Francisco, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was “not deterred at all” by Manchin’s announcement.

“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 [Act] is about transforming our society.”

She added, “I have confidence that Senator Manchin cares about our country and that at some point very soon we can take up the legislation.”

Although Schumer’s tone had a sharper edge, in his “Dear Colleague” letter he echoed the message from Pelosi and other leading Democrats that Manchin’s comments were a temporary, if jarring, setback and that the legislation would ultimately prevail.

“Neither that delay, nor other recent pronouncements, will deter us from continuing to try to find a way forward,” Schumer wrote. “We simply cannot give up. We must and we will keep fighting to deliver for working families.”

Many Democrats see the next few months as potentially their last chance for years to enact key elements of their agenda, including addressing climate change. Members of both parties widely expect the Democrats to lose the House in next year’s midterm elections, and it is uncertain when they will again control the presidency and both chambers of Congress.

Manchin’s opposition undercuts Biden climate agenda

That helps explain the emotion behind many Democrats’ reactions to Manchin, who most colleagues had believed was still enmeshed in talks over how to shape the bill to his liking.

In explaining his opposition after weeks of negotiations with Biden and Senate Democrats, Manchin suggested that circumstances had changed, citing rising consumer prices, a growing federal debt and the arrival of a new coronavirus variant.

That prompted an unusually harsh rebuttal from the White House just hours after his appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” Psaki accused Manchin of a “sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position” and said his comments broke his commitment to Biden and Democratic lawmakers.

Ocasio-Cortez on Monday referred to a White House statement that Manchin, just a few days earlier, had promised to continue negotiations with the president and had even submitted a version of the bill he could back.

That showed Manchin could not be trusted, the liberal congresswoman said. “No one can really be promised a Manchin vote,” Ocasio-Cortez said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding that fellow Democrats had been “strung along” by the senator.

Schumer said that if Republicans continue to block legislation, the chamber will consider changing its rules. Most bills require 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to pass. Democrats hope to pass Build Back Better through a parliamentary process called reconciliation, which would require 50 senators plus Vice President Harris’s vote as a tiebreaker.

“If Senate Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster and prevent the body from considering this bill, the Senate will then consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation,” Schumer wrote.

Sean Sullivan, Seung Min Kim and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.