Senate Democrats grow less confident in Manchin

Senate Democrats are growing less and less confident about whether Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) wants to strike a legislative deal with President Biden.

The lack of negotiations with Manchin since Congress returned from the Christmas recess and Manchin’s definitive statements of opposition are raising serious doubts about whether he would be willing to support any version of the Build Back Better Act, which would provide new funding for health care, child care and a host of other initiatives.

Manchin says he has tried to be as clear as possible about where he is, but fellow Senate Democratic colleagues feel confused about whether the West Virginia senator can be counted on to support some version of Biden’s sweeping agenda.  

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he has “no idea” whether Manchin wants a deal and that he has no more clarity about whether Manchin can get to “yes” than when the negotiations began in August.  

“Still in the dark,” he said when asked about Manchin’s endgame strategy.  

Other Democrats are growing skeptical of Manchin’s motives and wonder if he’ll ever get pinned down to something specific.

“It’s not like a normal negotiation and that’s what is frustrating Biden and frustrating everybody,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss doubts about whether Manchin is negotiating with a real end goal in mind.  

The lawmaker described the process as “a dance” and said Manchin regularly tells colleagues that he likes certain provisions in the bill or at least has an open mind about various proposals but still doesn’t seem any closer to signing off on a deal than he was months ago.  

“You expect people to sit in a room and hash out the details,” the senator added.  

Other senators agree that there’s been little evidence Manchin wants a deal.

“I have no reason to think that he does, literally no reason to think that he does,” said a second Democratic senator, who also pointed out that Manchin hasn’t showed any serious intention to pass Build Back Better or change the Senate rules to overcome a GOP filibuster against voting rights legislation.  

“All the evidence is to the contrary,” the source added. 

The comments mark a significant shift in tone and outlook among Senate Democrats compared to before the Christmas break, when lawmakers thought Manchin would be prepared to vote in January.  

Manchin said this past week that he didn’t have any plans to speak with Biden soon about reviving Build Back Better and told reporters that he was pretty much finished talking about its details.  

He said he made his position clear when he announced on “Fox News Sunday” on Dec. 19 that he couldn’t support the bill because of concerns about rising inflation and the need to conserve federal resources to respond to other unforeseeable crises.  

And Manchin told West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval last month that he never signed off on the White House statement stating that he had “reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan” and that the legislation was urgently needed.  

“I said that was the president’s statement, that wasn’t my statement,” Manchin said, acknowledging that he knows his colleagues are losing patience.  

“All of my colleagues are getting very frustrated,” he conceded.  

Manchin said he has agreed to talk with the president and fellow Democrats about the shape and scope of the climate and social spending bill but insists he never promised to support something in the end. 

The West Virginia senator balked last year at the two-track strategy for moving a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a partisan budget reconciliation bill in lockstep, declaring he could promise to support any climate and social spending bill that hadn’t been written yet.  

Growing doubts about whether Manchin will ever get around to supporting some version of Build Back Better has some Democrats calling for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to think about moving on.  

Progressives such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have said Schumer should bring Build Back Better to the floor immediately, even without Manchin’s support.  

“That this has gone on and on and on for week after week, and month after month — that does not sit well me nor the American people,” Sanders said last year.  

Sanders said as far back as October that “there’s a strong feeling within the caucus that we either fish or cut bait to get this thing done or we don’t get it done but that it does not continue to drag on forever.”  

Other Democrats have a more optimistic view of Manchin’s willingness to help pass Build Back Better.  

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he thinks Manchin wants a deal based on his conversations with him.  

“There are pieces of it he doesn’t like and he has questions about the size and the pay-fors and all that, but I’ve never detected in him that he doesn’t want there to be a deal,” he said.  

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he also thinks Manchin is working in good faith.  

“I think he is sincere in trying to work things out,” he said 

But Democrats who are optimistic about Manchin getting to “yes” on something predict the eventual deal will wind up looking much different from the $2 trillion version of the Build Back Better Act that passed the House in November or the $1.75 trillion framework unveiled by the White House in late October. 

“What he has conveyed directly and indirectly to the president and to a number of us is that we got to cut this thing down and it’s got to look like what I support. But what came out of the House? Forget it,” said a third Democratic senator, who believes a deal is still possible based on conversations with Manchin.  

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said there is a debate within the Democratic caucus over how many more weeks and months to spend on trying to resuscitate Build Back Better given the doubts about whether Manchin will agree to any package that isn’t a total disappointment to progressives.  

Casey, for one, says he’s inclined to spend a few more months on the bill in hopes that Biden, Manchin and other Democrats can eventually get on the same page. 

“He was for a long period of time very, very supportive of a lot of elements of the bill — home- and community-based services, child care, pre-K,” Casey said. “A lot of the focus was on what he didn’t support. He supported a lot of the big component parts.”  

Casey said while some of his colleagues “want to deal with Build Back Better when we get to it and move on,” he’s willing to let the talks play out for a good while longer.  

“As much as I wanted it done by Christmas, and I thought that was possible, I think we should give it as much time as we need,” he said. “If we can pass a different version of Build Back Better in the late spring, that would be good.” 

“Some people are getting frustrated that we focused on this legislation for so long and fell short and will continue to do that,” he said, acknowledging frustrations from fellow Democratic senators.  

But he also conceded the talks with Manchin “can’t be interminable.”  

Tags Ben Cardin Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Build Back Better Chuck Schumer Climate change Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Tim Kaine

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