Build Back Smaller: What’s the best path forward for Democrats?

Build Back Better sign in front of Capitol
Associated Press

The stalling of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda has left Democrats scrambling for ideas to get some programs in place before the 2022 midterm elections. Inflation has proven to be less transitory than the administration had anticipated, and the American people are in need of some economic support. Failure to deliver could make an already difficult election cycle even worse for Democrats.

The strategy to pass Build Back Better as one enormous reconciliation bill ran into the seemingly immoveable object of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). Manchin has signaled opposition to various aspects of the bill and that any future negotiations would have to begin from scratch.

So, what’s the best path forward? A renegotiated, smaller reconciliation bill (“Build Back Smaller”)? Or a legislative strategy of passing the most popular aspects of the agenda in “chunks”? The answer is to do both. Here’s how and why:

Whatever Manchin wants, the Democrats should push through quickly in a slimmed-down, “Build Back Smaller” reconciliation bill. Based on what we know about what Manchin presented to the White House in December, the following provisions might be included: universal pre-kindergarten, health care subsidies and several climate programs.

Manchin’s proposals would be funded over a decade, rather than the shorter terms Democrats had previously proposed (in order to lower the overall price tag of Build Back Better). Manchin’s proposed programs are important and can provide meaningful assistance to many Americans. Democrats should take the offer if it can be brought back to the table, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to the American people some level of competence in governing. 

Can anything be added to a Manchin-proposed bill? Perhaps, but Democrats shouldn’t get too greedy. Manchin is concerned with inflation, and he needs guarantees that the legislation will not be inflationary. Democrats need his vote for this reconciliation bill, so they should agree to Manchin’s taxing, spending and time-horizon concerns. Using the budget reconciliation process for programs with long time horizons will give Manchin some certainty and political cover as to the fiscal responsibility of the package.

Once a “Build Back Smaller” bill is passed, Democrats need to turn their attention to other popular elements of the larger Build Back Better agenda. Is it a fool’s task to even attempt to break off 11 Republican votes to pass the rest of the agenda items over Manchin’s lost vote, especially when Republicans have been so unified in opposition? Maybe, but in the best case, some legislation might pass, and in the worst case, Republicans can be put on record as voting against popular policies, which may help in the midterms.

But it’s not completely Pollyannish to expect some Republican support for select policies. Bipartisanship may be on life support, but it is not dead yet. For example, there was bipartisan support for the United States Innovation and Competition Act, which cleared the Senate in June by a vote of 68-32. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) could be a helpful ally, as he has shown interest in policies to help American families (the Family Security Act). The child tax credit could fit nicely into this “chunk” of policies. Democrats could make voting against such a bill costly to Republicans by pointing out recent research showing that babies’ cognitive development benefits from cash assistance to mothers. Other family-oriented aspects of Build Back Better that might be considered are paid family leave, child care subsidies, affordable housing and perhaps even Pell grants.

Democrats should also bundle a set of health care policies. Polling shows that health care provisions are the most popular parts of Build Back Better, including home health care for seniors and persons with disabilities, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, Medicare coverage of hearing, subsidies to cover the Medicaid coverage gap in 12 states that have not expanded it and expanding Affordable Care Act credits.

Whatever can’t be folded into a Manchin-backed “Build Back Smaller” bill should be put into this set of policies. These issues are winners for Democrats, and they need to start talking about these policies in detail to voters. This will help.

Finally, Democrats should put together a bill that addresses whatever climate change and environmental policies they cannot get in a Manchin-approved bill. Although an environmental “chunk” of policies is unlikely to pass, at the very least, it would absolve Democrats of criticism from their base for giving up on the issue. It would also cast Republicans as obstructionists on this global crisis.

Bringing these “chunks” of issues to the floor gives Democrats not only the ability to hold Republicans accountable for stalling them, but a real chance to explain to voters how these programs can better their lives — something that has been lost over the past year. Democrats believe that their perceived inability to deliver on promises to voters cost them the Virginia governorship. They lost the messaging battle on Build Back Better by combining it into a single, costly bill, allowing Republicans to dominate the narrative by focusing on the overall price tag.

Biden has re-asserted his intention to hit the road to take his case to the American people this year. It is high time for him to become the “explainer-in-chief” for these policies, and to show voters that Democrats are willing to fight for policies that will make their lives better.  

Todd Belt is a professor and the director of the Political Management Master’s Program at the George Washington University. He is the co-author of four books, including “The Presidency and Domestic Policy” (2nd ed.) with Michael Genovese and the late William Lammers. Follow him on Twitter @todd_belt.

Tags Affordable Care Act Biden Build Back Better Act Build Back Better plan Democratic Party Joe Biden Joe Manchin Mitt Romney Presidency of Joe Biden

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