WASHINGTON — President Biden’s roughly $2 trillion social spending and climate change bill appeared doomed after Senator Joe Manchin said Sunday he could not support it, blindsiding the White House, enraging progressive lawmakers, and seemingly leaving key Democratic priorities to wither on the vine.
“If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t,” Manchin said, speaking softly on “Fox News Sunday” as host Brett Baier’s eyes popped open.
“You’re done?” Baier asked. “This is a no?”
Manchin calmly took a breath. “This is a no, on this legislation,” he said.
The announcement, which the White House and progressives blasted as a betrayal, is the latest obstacle for a president who promised to break the legislative logjam in Washington and boost the recovering economy with a series of major bills to “build back better” from the devastation of the pandemic. It comes amid a surge in new COVID cases and persistent inflation that has soured voters on his administration. It also hurts the president’s oft-touted image as a seasoned dealmaker.
“This is about Joe Manchin obstructing the president’s agenda, obstructing the people’s agenda, torpedoing our opportunity to advance unprecedented advancements, to address the hurt that this pandemic-induced recession has caused, and to get this pandemic under control,” said Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston.
Democrats need every vote in the Senate to pass the most expensive piece of Biden’s agenda, the Build Back Better Act, because of unanimous Republican opposition. Now, party leaders are left scrambling to find another way to advance their key priorities, either putting them into narrower bills that would need bipartisan support to pass — something that seems unlikely — or by negotiating with Manchin on a slimmer package.
The development underscored the limits of Democrats’ power in Washington and laid bare a reality the White House has tried to defy all year: The party, which in 2020 lost 13 House seats and two key Senate races that could have padded their majority, simply does not have enough votes to pass all of the president’s ambitious agenda.
That dynamic has deeply frustrated Pressley and other progressives, who sought to leverage their power by yoking the passage of the social spending legislation to a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that had more support from Republicans and moderate Democrats, including Manchin. The two measures were decoupled in November after Democrats lost the governor’s race in Virginia and were desperate to move at least one of those measures forward.
Pressley was one of six House Democrats to vote against the infrastructure bill because, she said, she did not trust Manchin to stick to a deal to support the social spending bill.
Speaking on CNN, Pressley warned that Democrats were hurting their own prospects in next year’s midterm elections, when gerrymandered districts already give Republicans a distinct advantage, by failing to deliver key components of their agenda.
“We run the risk of risking the majority not by going big, but by playing small,” Pressley said. “So of course I have concerns about us not keeping our promises.”
The sweeping package was aimed at reducing health care costs by expanding Medicaid benefits and lowering drug prices; subsidizing child care, extending the enhanced child tax credit, and providing universal preschool; and combating climate change with a $555 billion investment in clean energy and other initiatives that its proponents said would significantly cut emissions.
Those climate provisions were a central part of the US delegation’s pitch to the rest of the world at a major UN climate change conference in Glasgow last month, with Democratic members of Congress breezily assuring their foreign counterparts that the package was set to pass.
On Sunday, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey urged the Senate to take up the climate provisions separately, although it is unlikely they could muster sufficient Republican support.
“Major climate and clean energy provisions of the Build Back Better Act have largely been negotiated, scored for 10 years, and financed,” Markey said. “Let’s pass these provisions now. We cannot let this moment pass.”
Democrats and like-minded independents hold 50 seats in the Senate plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, which makes every one of their votes crucial, but no one has wielded that power more deliberately — or more obstructively, as progressives would put it — than Manchin.
For months, he has balked at the size of the bill, wielding his veto power to shrink it from $3.5 trillion to less than $2 trillion. And major initiatives like the clean electricity plan, a key climate measure that would have encouraged utilities to switch to green energy, were cut at his behest.
During his Fox News interview, Manchin cited the national debt and rising inflation as reasons he could not support the bill, and then released a statement accusing Democrats of trying to “dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face.” The senator from coal country said the package’s climate provisions would “risk the reliability of our electric grid” and make the United States more dependent on foreign supply chains.
The White House hit back with a swift and personal rebuke, veering from its months-long, courtly negotiations with Manchin with a furious, 712-word missive. Press secretary Jen Psaki said Manchin had committed to support a framework for the legislation weeks ago in Biden’s Delaware home — and that he had given the president his own outline for a revised version of the bill as recently as Tuesday.
“If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort,” Psaki said, “they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
She said the White House would press Manchin to “reverse his position yet again” and vowed to find a way to move forward with the legislation next year.
Manchin’s apparent change of heart angered the full spectrum of Democrats in Washington, from ultra-liberals like Pressley to moderate House members who took a risk in voting for the massive bill.
“Senator Joe Manchin made a promise to President Biden to support a framework that would help lower health care costs, cap the price of insulin and other prescription drugs, lower child care costs for Americans, address the climate crisis, and give working people and poor people a shot in America,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that.”
“One Democratic US senator has now summarily walked away from productive negotiations,” said Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, whose current district is highly contested. “That is unacceptable, and we cannot act like this moment is the end.”
Manchin’s decision left issue-focused groups whose priorities would have seen massive infusions of funding, like those advocating for child care, paid leave, or gun violence prevention, reeling.
“The funds in this bill will save lives across our nation, particularly in Black and Brown communities impacted greatest by the daily toll of gun violence that persists,” said Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in a statement, referring to the $5 billion investment in violence intervention programs. “It is shameful that any Senator or elected official would turn their back on that funding.”
Republicans, however, were delighted that a member of the president’s party had apparently stuck the final nail in the bill’s coffin.
“It is now time for Congress to focus on roaring inflation, particularly in the energy sector, as well as a broken supply chain, and potential threats coming from the new COVID-19 variant,” tweeted Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.