The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Manchin, Biden discuss ‘different iterations’ of spending bill as Democrats seek consensus

The West Virginia Democrat has expressed caution about size and scope of spending package.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Biden’s economic agenda remained in political limbo on Monday, as Senate Democrats returned to Washington and set about confronting their simmering differences ahead of a self-imposed holiday deadline.

With less than two weeks until Christmas — the date by which Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he hopes to adopt the roughly $2 trillion bill — Democratic lawmakers still appeared at odds over the scope of their ambitions to overhaul the nation’s health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws.

The chief obstacle remains Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a pivotal moderate swing vote who has only intensified his criticisms of the package in recent days. Manchin has repeatedly refused to endorse the measure, known as the Build Back Better Act, and on Monday he reaffirmed his calls for Democrats to slow down their work, particularly in response to his concerns around inflation.

In a sign that the tense debate has entered a more serious phase, Manchin spoke directly with Biden on Monday evening to discuss the path forward. Exiting the conversation, the senator told reporters the two talked about “different iterations” of the bill, though Manchin declined to share specifics.

“Anything’s possible here,” Manchin said about the prospects of a vote before Christmas. Asked if he intends to continue negotiating with the White House, he replied, “I’m engaged, we’re engaged.”

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The meeting marked Biden’s latest attempt to engage Capitol Hill directly and save the final component of his economic agenda from further disputes and delays. The task has become all the more critical in the Senate, since Democrats in the narrowly divided chamber simply cannot adopt their roughly $2 trillion measure without Manchin’s supportive vote.

“The president looks forward to speaking directly with Senator Manchin about and making the case for why the president feels this legislation should move forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday before the call. Psaki added that the package itself could help combat inflation, responding to one of Manchin’s concerns.

In the meantime, Senate Democrats forged ahead with the intricate process known as reconciliation, which will allow the party and its razor-thin majority to band together and adopt the bill despite overwhelming opposition from Republicans.

Democrats over the weekend released another round of legislative text and official budgetary modeling, further refining the bill that party lawmakers adopted in the House last month. On Saturday, they debuted a new version of the proposal that helps pay for the roughly $2 trillion spending measure, a series of financing mechanisms that target millionaires and corporations that pay nothing in taxes.

Manchin renews his criticism of the $2 trillion spending package

But the text, released by the Senate Finance Committee, also highlighted the considerable work lawmakers must still do if they hope to bring the bill to the floor before the holiday. One of the most contentious issues — state and local tax relief targeting Americans in higher-cost communities — still has not been resolved. Democrats essentially left the section blank, as they continue to war over the future of that reduction, which some liberals see as too generous for the wealthy.

As they prepare to release more legislative text this week, Democrats also must work out the finer points of their proposal with the Senate parliamentarian. The reconciliation process carries strict rules in the Senate, requiring lawmakers to ensure every element of their plan has direct effects on the federal budget. If it does not, Republicans then can try to strike entire sections from the bill once it reaches the Senate floor.

In the days ahead, the two parties are set to battle it out in another round of private meetings in front of the Senate’s chief rule-keeper. The process already has imperiled some of Democrats’ initial policy ambitions, including their hopes to proffer reforms to the country’s immigration laws as part of the social spending bill.

“This remains a laborious process, requiring a lot of precision and a lot of pieces moving together,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor, opening debate for the week. “The work is not yet finished, but we’re working hard to put the Senate in a position to get the legislation across the finish line before Christmas.”

Manchin, however, represents Democrats’ greatest political challenge. The moderate lawmaker has repeatedly said he cannot wager a view on the bill until he sees its final text, frustrating many in his party, who say they have whittled down their package considerably to win Manchin’s support.

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In a series of interviews last week, the moderate lawmaker raised concerns the package still may be too large, it might not be paid for full, it might intensify inflation and it could inflict other harm on the economy. He repeated his calls for a political pause, echoing views he first communicated in September.

Manchin also has raised alarms about the way Democrats formulated the package. Party lawmakers essentially staggered or cut short some of their spending proposals, as they angled to keep down the total costs of the roughly $2 trillion package. The senator has sounded opposition to the idea, arguing that it masks the full costs of the bill since Democrats have made clear their desire to make many of its elements permanent in later years.

Republicans last week sought to capitalize on that source of angst, releasing an economic analysis showing the roughly $2 trillion proposal — if its components are extended — could add $3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. Democrats sharply rejected the estimate as a misinformed hypothetical that did not take into account their plans to pay for any future spending. But the lead Republican instigator, Sen. Lindsay Graham (S.C.), said he had raised the numbers directly with Manchin, and that the Democrat seemed “stunned” in response.

Asked about the conversation earlier Monday, Manchin told reporters the spending “should be 10 years,” adding that the data furnished by Graham was “very sobering.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this story.