President Biden last spring proposed spending more than $4 trillion to transform the American economy. In negotiations last fall, after some of that money ended up in a bipartisan infrastructure law, the administration lowered its request to roughly $2 trillion. Now, with time running out before November’s elections, many White House officials say privately that they’d consider themselves fortunate to secure a deal worth even $1 trillion.
Biden’s shrinking ambitions are largely the result of failed negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the ever-elusive 50th vote for the president’s agenda in an evenly divided chamber. Now White House officials are confronting the “real fear” that they will fail to reach any deal with Manchin — even one that leaves out most of what Biden had initially hoped to accomplish, according to three senior administration officials and three outside advisers in communication with the White House, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal talks. A year after Biden introduced his climate and social spending plans, the White House is running out of time to get Manchin onboard, with many lawmakers in Congress viewing July 4 as a crucial deadline for action.
In recent weeks, White House officials have quietly tried gauging Manchin’s interest in a package that would consist primarily of clean-energy initiatives, prescription drug reform, and higher taxes on the rich and corporations, the people said. The ideas discussed internally include more than $500 billion of deficit reduction, the people said. On Monday, a Manchin spokeswoman reiterated that the senator supports measures to boost U.S. energy production, lower prescription drug costs, and raise tax revenue from corporations and the rich.
But despite his support for these provisions generally, Manchin has not yet made clear to the White House precisely what he would support in a final agreement, the people familiar with the administration’s discussions said. Manchin privately told lawmakers in recent days that he wants Congress to approve a bipartisan energy deal in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which would complicate an already difficult timeline for a broader spending proposal, according to two other people familiar with the matter, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks. A bipartisan group, including Manchin, met Monday night to discuss energy legislation.
“The White House is throwing every iteration at him,” one senior administration official said about the talks with Manchin. “But the relationship got to a bad place, in part because of tactics used on both sides.”
One White House adviser added: “There’s real fear inside the building that Manchin’s stonewalling will run out the clock on Biden’s legislative agenda throughout the rest of the year, leading the administration and congressional Democrats into November without anything else to offer voters.”
Sam Runyon, a Manchin spokeswoman, said in an email that the senator “is always willing to engage in discussions about the best way to move our country forward.” Manchin told Bloomberg News on Monday night that lawmakers reach out to him casually but that there is “nothing formal” on a new proposal. On Tuesday, as he left a half-hour meeting with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Manchin declared that any Democratic economic legislation moving on Capitol Hill this year would have to be closely focused on combating inflation.
“He remains seriously concerned about the financial status of our country and believes fighting inflation by restoring fairness to our tax system and paying down our national debt must be our first priority,” Runyon said in a statement. She added that Manchin believes in fighting climate change and promoting U.S. energy independence, while ensuring “no family has to choose between life-saving medications and putting food on the table.”
The White House has acknowledged publicly that its conversations with Manchin are continuing. Several senior Biden officials, including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, traveled to West Virginia for meetings with Manchin in March.
Leaving the meeting with Schumer on Tuesday, Manchin ruled out discussions of social programs and tempered expectations of a potential deal. “There’s nothing formal,” he told reporters. “I want to make sure y’all understand: There’s no false hopes here.”
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that any Biden officials frustrated or worried by Manchin’s remarks did not represent the views of the administration.
“Anyone expressing those sentiments is not speaking for the White House. Senator Manchin’s communications with us have been clear and in good faith,” Bates said. “We do not comment on the specifics of our contacts with lawmakers, but are in touch with a wide range of members about a reconciliation package that will cut some of the biggest costs families face, fight inflation as well as climate change, and keep reducing the deficit at an historic pace.”
Failure to reach a compromise would have profound economic and political consequences. The administration has touted last year’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan and the separate bipartisan infrastructure law as historic achievements. But the White House views its proposed energy tax credits as crucial to fighting global warming and moving the U.S. economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. Its proposals to enact substantial tax hikes on rich Americans could amount to the most substantial rewrite of the nation’s tax code since the Reagan administration and respond to growing alarm about wealth inequality. Biden may have fewer other chances to make a lasting imprint on the economy.
Even if successful, a smaller bill now is certain to jettison key priorities of top Democratic lawmakers and interest groups.
“Obviously, they’re disappointed,” said Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, citing conversations with White House officials. “They were very much expecting to see something get through. They knew they wouldn’t get their ideal package, but they expected to have something to show from it.”
Democrats are trailing in the polls ahead of the midterm elections, and the GOP is widely expected to take control of at least the House, if not also the Senate, in January. Even some of the Democrats’ more centrist voices are growing exasperated about the lack of clarity over what precise measures Manchin supports.
“This is now the time for Manchin to demonstrate he wants a deal of some sort by indicating exactly what would be acceptable to him. The time for 20 questions is over,” said Bill Galston, who served as a top domestic policy aide in the Clinton administration and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, another D.C.-based think tank. “If he is serious about doing the deal, now is the time to do it.”
Hopes for a deal have not been extinguished. In broad terms, Manchin has continued in recent weeks to say he supports addressing the deficit through tax reform, reining in prescription drug costs and spending billions on energy initiatives — exactly the areas the White House is focusing on in discussions with him.
Defenders of Manchin say the White House ignored his demands during initial negotiations. Senior Democrats and administration officials had supported legislation that would have ended new government programs after a few years, lowering the overall spending. Manchin objected, arguing that the plan disguised the true cost of proposed programs. The administration has abandoned that approach, people familiar with the matter said.
Manchin has been clear that he will approve only legislation that is fully paid for, and is detailed and limited in scope, but the administration has not produced such an offer, one Manchin ally said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.
Ben Ritz, the director of the Center for Funding America’s Future at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank, added: “[The White House] did not meet Manchin where he was during the last round of Build Back Better, and that’s why it fell apart. … At least in the public statements, as everyone is talking about a prescription drug reform and energy bill — that sounds like they’re trying to meet him where he is.”
Democrats face major hurdles. In particular, the relationship between Manchin and the White House appears to have been badly damaged by negotiations last fall. Manchin was incensed by the administration’s decision to name him in a news release as an obstacle to a deal.
The senator from West Virginia has also grown increasingly critical of the administration’s economic stewardship. Since voting for the stimulus plan, Manchin has expressed alarm about rising prices and said inflation amounts to a tax on American households. Manchin also recently told donors that he plans to run for reelection in 2024, according to CNBC. Some White House officials privately wonder whether Manchin benefits politically from high-profile fights with Biden, who is unpopular in West Virginia. Most polls show most people in the state approve of Manchin’s performance.
Some Biden allies say Manchin’s apparently shifting demands have complicated negotiations. In July, Manchin gave Schumer a one-page document agreeing to $1.5 trillion in spending to enact key parts of Biden’s agenda. Senior Democrats spent the summer pressing Manchin on a deal worth more than $2 trillion, with the president eventually describing a $1.9 trillion plan in October as a target for negotiations. In December, Manchin made the White House a concrete $1.8 trillion counteroffer that included universal prekindergarten and hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy. The Washington Post reported in January that Manchin later took that offer off the table.
“The point, for Manchin, is the attention, and the best proof is that after a full year of breathless coverage, nobody really has a handle on what he actually wants to pass,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a liberal strategist. “The only thing consistent about Joe Manchin III throughout this process is that he’s insisted on putting himself at the center of it.”