A push by Senate Democrats to pass a roughly $2 trillion tax-and-spending measure before Christmas appeared in dire political peril Wednesday, as talks soured between President Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) over the size and scope of the economic package.
The impasse left party lawmakers on Capitol Hill impatient and frustrated, after they spent months trying to slim down their original spending ambitions to win Manchin’s still-elusive support. Some Democrats grew especially concerned about the fate of one of their most widely touted proposals — an extension of a soon-expiring federal program that provides roughly 35 million families with monthly child tax aid. Without a resolution, those Americans could have received their final payment Wednesday.
Other Democrats privately began weighing a change in their approach, shifting focus in the final weeks of the year from the spending initiative to voting rights. Yet it remained unclear if Democrats could shepherd those election reforms through the ever-divided chamber, since Manchin similarly has stood his ground in that debate — refusing to budge on changing Senate rules to overcome a guaranteed Republican filibuster.
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Biden still expressed “hope” that the Senate could meet its own self-imposed holiday deadline on the roughly $2 trillion measure known as the Build Back Better Act. Asked if he had made progress in talks with Manchin, the president replied: “Some.”
By Wednesday afternoon, though, Biden seemed open to shifting his attention toward voting rights as talks proceeded on that issue — all the while negotiations over his signature economic initiative continued to stall.
“If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it,” he said as he surveyed the damage of a deadly string of tornadoes in Kentucky. “If we can’t, we’ve got to keep going. There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights.”
The standoff nonetheless evinced the political divide between Biden and a member of his own party, despite Democrats’ repeated efforts over the past year to assuage Manchin’s concerns. Without his support, Senate Democrats simply lack the votes in the narrowly divided chamber to finalize their roughly $2 trillion proposal, even if they invoke special chamber rules that allow them to sidestep a GOP filibuster.
The potential political roadblocks arrived on a day when Democrats initially had sought to project a sense of optimism, believing they could steer the final piece of the president’s economic agenda to passage in the Senate roughly a month after House Democrats approved it.
Taking to the Senate floor, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) began the day by stressing lawmakers’ continued work “on getting the Senate into a position where we can vote on the president’s Build Back Better legislation.” Schumer repeatedly has said he hopes the chamber can act to complete its legislative legwork before Christmas, sending a revised measure back to the House.
The White House, meanwhile, similarly tried to strike a positive note. Speaking to reporters, principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden has had “two great conversations with [Manchin] this week that have been productive,” declining to share more about the scope of the talks.
Behind the scenes, though, the White House appeared to find itself warring again with one of its own.
A longtime holdout on the package, Manchin for months has maintained concerns that Democrats are spending too much, and too quickly, potentially compounding the risks of inflation at a time when prices are rising at a rapid clip. He successfully negotiated down the party’s original package from its initial $3.5 trillion price tag earlier this year, frustrating liberal lawmakers in the process.
But the senator never endorsed the roughly $2 trillion legislation that emerged from the House, a proposal that aims to expand Medicare, authorize universal prekindergarten, invest new sums to combat climate change and expand federal safety net programs. Instead, Manchin over the past two weeks has intensified his criticisms about inflation and repeated his desire that Democrats hit pause on the process.
The tensions at times have flashed most around Democrats’ plans to extend a child tax credit they first expanded earlier this year. Once a smaller, annual benefit, Democrats broadly have touted the payments — delivered now on a monthly basis — as a critical endeavor toward combating child poverty and helping low-income Americans afford expenses including education and food.
The plussed-up payments are set to expire at the end of December unless lawmakers reauthorize it as part of their broader package. But their urgent requests so far have failed to move Manchin, who previously has expressed general skepticism about approving aid that sends more checks directly to Americans.
“If we keep sending checks,” he said at an event hosted by the Wall Street Journal last week, “it’s going to be hard to stop the checks.”
One person familiar with the matter said Wednesday that Manchin essentially seeks to zero-out the program in the bill in his talks with Biden. A second person familiar with his thinking — also speaking on the condition of anonymity — said the senator is not opposed to the child tax credit specifically but rather the fuller measure’s construction and price tag.
In private negotiations with the president, Manchin has maintained that Democrats should spend no more than $1.75 trillion, the second person said. And the senator has held firm in his belief that any program in the 10-year spending measure should occur over the full decade period — which, in the case of the child tax credit, could cost $1.4 trillion. That could make it impractical for Democrats to reauthorize the program while meeting Manchin’s needs.
Manchin himself on Wednesday swatted away reporters’ questions about the fuller negotiations, though he later said he is “not opposed” to the child tax credit. He did not elaborate on his stance, beyond decrying “bad rumors.” His office did not respond to a request for comment.
But the news left Democrats stunned and furious, as they awaited further details to what Manchin actually seeks. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the tax-focused Senate Finance Committee, described the expanded child tax credit program as a “lifeline” — and said lawmakers are looking at alternate means to adopt it potentially outside of the context of their now-stalled $2 trillion package.
“We would not tolerate an interruption of a Social Security payment for vulnerable elderly people,” said Wyden, who said that Democrats are “working through” the issues.
The dispute even spilled over onto the Senate floor late Wednesday, as Wyden objected to the Senate taking the next step on an unrelated bill targeting forced labor in China. The senator sought to secure a one-year extension to the expanded child tax credit as part of that measure, but Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a sponsor of the underlying bill, objected to the request.
“I am completely sympathetic … to the fight against genocide and forced labor,” Wyden said in a speech after his gambit failed. “I also feel incredibly strongly, incredibly strongly about our vulnerable children and our vulnerable families that are going to be cut off from an essential lifeline unless the United States Senate acts.”
As a result, he said, “we’re not going to have a chance to take two bold steps tonight.”
The standoff reflected the harsh political reality Democrats now face. Party lawmakers are able to sidestep the GOP in adopting the fuller Build Back Better Act through a process known as reconciliation, which avoids the possibility of a filibuster — but that avenue may not be available to them to extend the child tax credit expansion on its own.
Speaking to reporters earlier Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) acknowledged the political obstacles the party might encounter — since her chamber is likely to act, yet the issue of “whether we could pass it in the Senate remains to be seen.”
“But I don’t want to let anybody off the hook [on the bill] to say, ‘Well we covered that one thing, so now the pressure is off,’ ” Pelosi said. “I think that is really important leverage in the discussion on [Build Back Better], that their children and their families are going to suffer without that payment.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this story.