Manchin, Sinema put stamp on party, to progressive chagrin

The $1.75 trillion social spending framework unveiled by the White House on Thursday — a package half the size of what progressives imagined just weeks ago — shows Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are winning the party debate over President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

Manchin and Sinema insisted a final package must be much smaller than the $3.5 trillion goal initially set by Democratic leaders, and they stuck to their demands.

The framework price tag is much closer to Manchin’s top line of $1.5 trillion than the $6 trillion some progressives dreamed of landing. Even after it became clear the $3.5 trillion goal would be shrunk, Democrats hoped for a range of $2.5 trillion to $2.8 trillion.

Then they revised their expectations to $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion.

On Thursday they got $1.75 trillion.

Biden insisted it would still be regarded as a major policy accomplishment if passed into law, and it’s true the bill would mark a big achievement.

Yet the majority of Democrats had to offer concession after concession to get to the lower figure, including dropping a national paid family leave program entirely.

Manchin and Sinema “were very influential” in shaping the framework, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged, before adding after a pause: “for better or worse.”

The centrist duo were on speed dial with White House aides and the president in the stretch leading up to Thursday, underscoring their influence on the final product.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a leading progressive, observed that the two centrists “were in the room right from the very beginning.”

And in the 50-50 Senate, each effectively had a veto on the final bill.  

Democrats are passing the measure through budget rules that prevent a GOP filibuster. But that means they can’t afford a single defection in their caucus.

Manchin and Sinema left their fingerprints all over the framework.

It would expand Medicare to cover hearing, but not dental and vision because of Manchin’s concerns over cost and Medicare’s own solvency.

A clean electricity program was jettisoned, and Manchin raised a red flag over a proposed carbon fee last month when he argued it would do little to bolster the development of new technologies and would more likely become a bludgeon against the coal industry.

He has also voiced concerns over any methane fee that would penalize natural gas companies, telling The Hill this week: “You’ve got to give an incentive to do the right thing. … Methane pricing done wrong is very detrimental, it won’t happen.”

Corporate tax rates could not be raised because of Sinema’s objections. The Arizona Democrat also said no to hikes on individual rates for the wealthy.

Manchin described an effort to tax the wealth of billionaires’ investments as “convoluted,” and it didn’t make the final package. “I don’t like it. I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people,” Manchin told reporters when asked about it.

The White House also discarded a plan to raise the capital gains rate from 20 percent to 39.6 percent for people earning more than $1 million.

The framework does include a 15 percent corporate minimum tax that would apply to companies with more than $1 billion in profits, which both Manchin and Sinema have endorsed.

It all left progressives grumbling.

“Clearly to my mind it has some major gaps in it,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said of the White House framework on Thursday.

Manchin and Sinema, by contrast, seemed quite pleased. Manchin told colleagues that it’s something he can “work with,” while Sinema hailed “significant progress” and said she looked “forward to getting this done.”

The White House framework also left out a proposal championed by Sanders and other liberals to empower the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, bowing to Sinema, who opposed granting Medicare far-ranging authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.

After the framework was unveiled Thursday, a spokeswoman for Sinema announced that the senator and Biden had “reached agreement to include historic Medicare drug price negotiations in the proposed budget reconciliation package.”

The Arizona Republic reported that the proposal backed by Sinema tracks legislation sponsored by Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) that would provide a yearly out-of-pocket cap in Medicare for prescription drugs for lower income Americans

It would also allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices or medications no longer protected by patents but are still expensive because they lack competition from generic drugs.

The slimmed down proposal was not included in Biden’s framework because not all House Democrats had agreed to it and progressives want to give Medicare more authority.

Democratic senators are still negotiating over a proposal to lower the price of prescription drugs, but it will be far narrower than what they initially envisioned.

Democrats earlier this year thought they could save the federal government between $500 billion and $700 billion. Now Democrats involved in the negotiations say it’s more likely to save an amount in the range of $100 billion to $150 billion.

Bob Borosage, the co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group, said while the White House framework “has a lot in it” for progressives to be happy about, it’s also “disappointing.”

He said many progressives are trying to wrap their heads around Manchin’s and Sinema’s ability to reshape the package, even though the Build Back Better agenda as originally proposed by Biden had overwhelming Democratic support.

“In this negotiation Manchin and Sinema were just wreckers. They were wrecking a framework that was essentially created by Sanders and his campaign and embraced by Biden. They dismembered big, huge pieces of it,” he said.

Borosage said House Democrats who voted against giving Medicare broad power to negotiate lower prescription drugs “would have been rolled if they didn’t have Sinema and Manchin” as allies in the Senate.

“The fact is the Democratic Party is incredibly unified and would have passed all of the $3.5 trillion agenda, and then these two just took it apart,” he added.

This story was updated on Nov. 1 to include a statement from Sinema spokeswoman Hannah Hurley on the senator and Biden reaching an agreement on a proposal to lower some prescription drug costs.

Tags Bernie Sanders Billionaire's tax Build Back Better Climate change Dick Durbin Ed Markey Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Scott Peters

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