Democratic leaders betting Manchin will back down in spending fight

Democrats are racing ahead with a $3.5 trillion spending package that would boost funding for social programs and raise taxes despite rumblings from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that he might not support legislation with that price tag.

Democratic leaders are betting they can pressure Manchin to back down on his push for spending that’s closer to $1.5 trillion or $2 trillion.

In doing so, they’re essentially daring Manchin and other moderates like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to vote against the eventual budget reconciliation package, knowing that the base would erupt in anger over any Democratic lawmakers who buck the party on such a high-profile vote.

Senate and House committees are scrambling to reach consensus on sections of the so-called human infrastructure bill under their jurisdictions by Friday, and Democratic staff working on the legislation haven’t received any indication that it will be pared back to appease Manchin. 

Progressive activists warn that if the bill falls well below the $3.5 trillion target set by Senate and House leaders, there will be significant backlash.

Manchin warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week that he won’t vote for a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill — putting President Biden’s agenda in peril since Democrats can’t afford a single defection in the 50-50 Senate — but his shot across the bow isn’t deterring fellow Democrats.

Axios reported Tuesday evening that Manchin won’t support a package that exceeds $1.5 trillion, a number the West Virginia Democrat floated earlier this year as a potential spending target.

Manchin’s office on Wednesday declined to confirm that $1.5 trillion is a red line for him. But the figure is in line with previous comments.

Manchin told ABC News’s “This Week” in June that he wouldn’t support a large spending package if Congress could only come up with enough revenue and savings to offset the cost of a $1.5 trillion or $2 trillion bill.

In last week’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, Manchin wrote that “ignoring the fiscal consequences of our policy choices will create a disastrous future for the next generation of Americans.” 

But those warnings are falling on deaf ears in the Democratic leadership and the broader Democratic caucuses.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday brushed off Manchin’s threat and told reporters that negotiators are still planning to unveil a bold and ambitious proposal. 

“In our caucus — there are some in my caucus who believe $3.5 trillion is too much, there are some in my caucus who believe it’s too little,” Schumer said on a press call Wednesday morning. “I can tell you this: In reconciliation we’re all going to come together to get something big done and, second, it’s our intention to have every part of the Biden plan in a big and robust way.”

Asked about Manchin’s call for a “strategic pause,” Schumer insisted “we’re moving full speed ahead.”

“We want to keep going forward. We think getting this done is so important to the American people for all the reasons we have outlined,” he said. “We are moving forward on this bill.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday that colleagues putting together the legislation will stick with the $3.5 trillion goal, though she acknowledged the final number might be different.

“I don’t know what the number will be. We are marking at $3.5 trillion,” she said.

A senior Democratic staffer said Senate and House committees, which face an end-of-week deadline to finish their elements of the reconciliation package by the end of this week, haven’t received any indication the final version will be pared down from the $3.5 trillion top-line spending goal laid out in the budget resolutions passed last month by each chamber.

“We’re working our asses off,” said the aide. “All we’re doing is working. We have been under orders to get to agreement with our House counterparts by close-of-business Friday.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has primary jurisdiction over the reconciliation process, says the spending target agreed to by congressional Democrats already represents a significant compromise with moderates. 

“The overwhelming majority of members of the budget committee — and I think a good 80 or more percent of Democratic members of the Senate — supported a $6 trillion bill,” Sanders said of the spending number he originally floated ahead of the budget debate.

Sanders argues that $3.5 trillion is what needs to be spent on transforming the nation’s energy economy to address climate change and “dealing with the needs of the working class.”

“To my mind, this bill at $3.5 trillion is already a major, major compromise. And at the very least this bill should be $3.5 trillion,” he said Wednesday.

Democratic strategists warn of a backlash from the party’s base if the legislation — which includes substantial spending on long-term care for the elderly and disabled, an extension of the child tax credit, funding for expanded child care and significant investments in renewable energy sources — falls well below $3.5 trillion.

“The reaction from progressives, which is already being indicated, would be very bad. People would be very disappointed,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist. 

But Lux said the threats from moderates should be viewed more as bargaining positions. 

“People are doing a lot of posturing right now and throwing out broad numbers and broad statements. The fact is that Joe Manchin and other Democrats in the House and Senate voted for the $3.5 trillion budget outline,” he said. “We’re going to have to work very hard to get everybody on board with the budget plan again.

“There are going to be a lot of changes, a lot of compromises that everybody is going to have to make. The most important thing is to stay calm and keep talking to each other. Sooner or later we’ll get to a package that both Joe Manchin and [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez] can embrace because we need everybody,” he added. “I think it will work itself out in the end.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden economic agenda budget reconciliation Centrists Charles Schumer human infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema moderates Nancy Pelosi
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