Desperate Dems signal support for cutting Biden bill down in size
House Democratic leaders scrambling to salvage President Biden’s massive health, climate and education package are facing plenty of internal disputes about the best strategy in the coming weeks — with one big exception. Doing nothing, all sides agree, is not an option.
Vulnerable Democrats facing tough reelections are desperate for a big victory to bring home to their districts ahead of the midterm elections. Liberal lawmakers fighting to install historic social benefits see this year as their last, best chance to do so, given the tough odds facing Democrats in those elections. Environmentally minded Democrats are warning of the urgent need to tackle climate change.
And with Biden’s approval rating underwater, party leaders are racing to reverse the trend — and boost morale among dispirited base voters — if they’re to have any chance of preserving the chamber in November.
They have their work cut out.
The $2.2 trillion Build Back Better Act was passed by the House in November but has since hit a brick wall in the Senate in the form of Joe Manchin (D), a West Virginia centrist who’s voicing concerns that new spending on that level will saddle the country with debt and exacerbate skyrocketing inflation.
Manchin’s entrenched opposition has led House Democrats of all stripes to acknowledge the need to scale back the package if they’re to get it to Biden’s desk. But with so much on the line — and with Manchin already on record endorsing major components of the bill, like cutting prescription drug costs — they seem increasingly willing to accept concessions.
“I don’t care if you call it ‘The Joe Manchin Bill.’ I just want it passed,” said one Democratic lawmaker.
The stubborn impasse poses steep hurdles for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who threaded a delicate needle in uniting a diverse and restive caucus behind the massive benefits package last year and may soon face the challenge of doing it again. With a razor-thin House majority, success will require support from liberals — who were already grumbling that $2.2 trillion was too small and will now have to accept something even smaller — and vulnerable lawmakers, some of whom are calling for leadership to break Build Back Better into smaller components and pass them individually.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D), a Texas liberal, spoke for most progressives in voicing strong support for the initial $2.2 trillion package, saying she’s hopeful the final product features “as many of those policies and investments as possible.”
“I believe there remains an opportunity to do that, and I am eager to pursue any and all viable avenues,” she told The Hill.
As Congress returned to Washington last week from a long holiday break, Pelosi addressed the caucus behind closed doors and made clear that the package remains a priority — whatever form it ultimately takes.
“It is essential that we build back better,” Pelosi told reporters after that meeting. “We have the makings of it in the legislation, and I think there’s an agreement to be made.”
Manchin quashed the $2.2 trillion package in dramatic fashion last month, when he appeared on Fox News to say in no uncertain terms that he would reject it if it reached the floor. The announcement appeared to stun Biden and the White House, which had been in intense talks with the centrist holdout, and liberal Democrats lashed out that Manchin had “betrayed his commitment” to negotiate in good faith, in the words of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Manchin’s decision to defy Biden has highlighted the limited influence of a president suffering low approval ratings as he’s struggled to contain the dual crises of COVID-19 and inflation. It also reflects the changing politics of West Virginia. Once a Democratic stronghold, the state voted overwhelmingly for former President Trump in the last two presidential cycles. And Trump may be on the ticket again in 2024, when Manchin is up for reelection.
The combination of factors has threatened to sink a major plank of Biden’s domestic agenda in the 50-50 Senate, where Manchin’s support is crucial. It’s given him outsize leverage in the fight — and all sides seem to know it.
“It’s Joe Manchin’s bill and Joe Manchin’s calendar,” said a second House Democrat.
Yet Manchin has endorsed large sections of the House package, including universal early education, an ObamaCare expansion, billions of dollars for climate programs and a provision empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices on behalf of seniors — a change Pelosi has sought for decades. With that in mind, Democrats in both chambers are increasingly bullish that they can pare back the benefits in the initial package, win Manchin’s support and get a version of the bill to Biden’s desk this year.
“You’re right that it’s dead, the most recent version of it is not going to happen,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “But … I still believe we’re going to find a core of this bill — whatever we call it — we’re going to find the core of the bill and pass it, and it will deal directly with some of these inflation concerns.”
Centrist Democrats who are aligned with Manchin are pointing to plenty of common ground on a variety of issues.
International tax provisions used to help pay for Build Back Better are “very popular,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. He also joked that he’s heard there’s a “pretty good prescription drug pricing plan” in the Biden legislation — both he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a top Manchin ally, negotiated that deal in the Build Back Better bill that cleared the House on Nov. 19.
And while Manchin has expressed serious reservations about extending the enhanced child tax credit, Peters said he believes restarting the expired program in some form is good policy. Leaders are already working on ideas to scale back the credit, possibly by cutting the time frame or the number of families who qualify for the monthly benefits.
“To me, if you want to help families, child tax credits make the most sense,” Peters told The Hill. “It provides resources in a targeted way and gives parents the ability to decide whether to stay home, send kids to preschool or invest in child care.”
Manchin has already demonstrated a willingness to negotiate on other parts of Biden’s agenda. He helped to craft the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that became law late last year. And after initially opposing Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package in March, he ultimately signed on after some of the benefits, including direct stimulus checks, were scaled back to diminish their effect on deficit spending.
It’s that version of Manchin that Democrats are hoping to see emerge in the coming weeks, as midterm campaigns ramp up and party leaders are searching frantically for a big legislative victory that might help their prospects in close races.
“I believe and am confident that a version of Build Back Better will pass,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “And hopefully will pass in the near term.”
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