Manchin sees his power grow
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) may be the most powerful member of the Senate, and his leverage in the fight over President Biden’s social spending and climate agenda has increased in the past week.
Manchin scored a major win Friday when the House passed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he helped negotiate. It will bring an estimated $6 billion in federal funding to his home state.
Progressives held the bill in the Senate for months in an effort to exert leverage over Manchin and other centrists in the negotiations over Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.
But in the end, liberals allowed the bill to move forward after a commitment from House centrists to back a larger climate and social spending bill. The House also approved the rule setting up debate on that measure.
Yet throughout the negotiations, that larger bill was trimmed down because of demands from Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). And neither has completely committed to voting for the social spending and climate bill.
Manchin on Monday hailed the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill as a huge victory for his constituents.
“This is one of the most important pieces of legislation we’ve done,” he told reporters in West Virginia. “Bipartisan infrastructure has been tried over the last 30 years and no president’s been able to get it done. It’s unbelievable.”
He said $3 billion will go to federal highway programs in the state; nearly $200 million will go to complete Corridor H of the Appalachian Development Highway System, which is known within the state as the Robert C. Byrd Highway System; $190 million for statewide transit; $43 million for state airports and $700 million to rehabilitate abandon mine lands.
Progressives in the Senate and House wanted to use all those goodies for West Virginia as leverage to push Manchin to accept ambitious proposals to combat climate change, expand Medicare, establish a national paid family leave program and other priorities that were expected to be part of the budget reconciliation package.
But now billions of dollars in hard infrastructure investment for West Virginia is going to get signed into law by Biden and Manchin still hasn’t signed off on a framework for the Build Back Better Act.
“I don’t completely understand — and I listened to some of them interviewed — how progressives don’t feel like they were rolled. It sure feels that way to me,” said John Kilwein, a professor of political science at West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
“For a guy like Manchin I think there was a critical piece of leverage that was taken away because he got what he wanted. The traditional infrastructure bill will help the state,” he added.
Manchin didn’t let the fate of the bipartisan infrastructure package alter his negotiating positions on the reconciliation package, even though his colleagues insisted that the two bills were linked.
“He has negotiated the same way the entire time. It was in good faith and in hopes of reaching a common-sense compromise,” said Jonathan Kott, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Manchin. “I think he’s going to keep negotiating the same way even though the jobs bill has passed.”
Kott said Manchin’s call for fellow Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill immediately and proceed cautiously with the $1.75 trillion to $2 trillion budget reconciliation package was backed up by last week’s election results in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republican candidates did well despite Biden winning both states comfortably last year.
“He is correct that we should know exactly what this bill costs and what the long-term implications of it are and that is the responsible thing to do — and keep our focus on getting it right than getting it fast. And I think he’s correct that voters want their election officials to get things done,” Kott added.
Manchin told his progressive House colleagues in a blunt press conference last week that their efforts to exert leverage over him by continuing to hold up the bipartisan infrastructure bill wouldn’t work.
“In my view this is not how the United States Congress should operate or in my view has operated in the past. The political games have to stop,” he warned last week.
Manchin pledged to continue negotiating in good faith with Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) but warned that “holding” the bipartisan infrastructure “hostage is not going to work in getting my support for the reconciliation bill.”
He reiterated that “I will not support a reconciliation package that expands social programs and irresponsibly adds to our $29 trillion in national debt that no one seems to really care about or even talk about.”
Some progressives, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), warned earlier this year that Biden’s agenda shouldn’t be split up between a bill focused on hard infrastructure, a priority that enjoyed broader political support, and a second focused on social spending programs that are higher priorities for liberals.
She foresaw that splitting the agenda up into two bills might make it tougher to unify the party behind the social spending elements of Biden’s agenda.
“I want to see the details of how they’re planning to make sure that the climate issues and the child care issues don’t get left behind. We can’t have the train leave the station and critical parts are left on the platform,” she said in March when Democratic leaders first floated the two-track strategy for moving Biden’s infrastructure agenda.
Key liberal priorities were dropped from a White House framework the president unveiled on Oct. 28, including the $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, which Manchin worried would be used to drive coal companies out of business, and the national paid family leave program, which Manchin worried would add to much to the deficit.
And the framework’s proposal called for expanding Medicare benefits to only cover hearing care, leaving aside dental and vision care, out of deference to Manchin’s concerns over the programs solvency.
Manchin still hasn’t signed off on the framework, despite the significant concessions to him.
But some moderate Democratic strategists are doubtful that lumping everything into one massive infrastructure package or keeping the bipartisan infrastructure bill firmly tied to the outcome of the negotiations on reconciliation bill would have moved Manchin to support more social spending.
“That’s not what was going to happen. Manchin is happy to wait five more months,” said Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Even when Democrats set a $3.5 trillion spending target for the reconciliation package in the budget resolution, Kessler thought “this is going to end up at $2 trillion” because of resistance from Manchin and other centrists.
But Democratic strategists think Manchin will eventually sign onto the reconciliation package, though it may not be until the week of Thanksgiving, when the Congressional Budget Office is expected to provide an official cost estimate for the bill, or later.
Steve White, the director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation in Charleston, W.Va., said “the idea somehow that he doesn’t want the second bill, I think, is wrong.”
“I think he doesn’t want all of the second bill. Half of the second bill is a lot,” he added of the reconciliation bill. “I’m looking forward to what it looks like and I think there will be a lot of good stuff for West Virginia.”
White said the bipartisan infrastructure bill will have a “huge” impact on West Virginia but he said the reconciliation bill will also have significant investments for the state.
He said spending on renewable energy, such as wind turbines, could create good job opportunities in the state.
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