Equilibrium & Sustainability

Democrats give Manchin earful on lack of progress on spending bill

Democratic senators vented their displeasure at a lunch meeting Tuesday with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and with the lack of progress on the $1.75 trillion climate and social spending plan that remains in limbo because of Manchin’s objections to a variety of issues.

Democratic lawmakers said they gave Manchin an earful after he accused his colleagues Monday of using “shell games and budget gimmicks” to mask the true cost of the legislation and then rubbed salt on the wound by declaring Tuesday he was in no rush to get a deal.

Senators didn’t address Manchin’s defiant press conference directly, but they let him know that the dragging nature of the talks, in which he is a key player, is a big problem.

“There’s enormous frustration with the slow pace. We’ve got to get this resolved and done,” said one Democratic senator who summarized the meeting.  

While Democratic leaders set a goal of getting a framework agreement by the end of October, senators say it’s becoming clear that a bill is still weeks away from being finished.

“There’s enormous complexity to the climate stuff, the drug stuff, the tax provisions. None of it’s nailed down, so we know we’re a long way from having a bill we can vote on,” the senator added.

A second Democratic senator who attended Tuesday’s lunch said colleagues are upset that priorities they have worked on for years, such as a national paid family leave program or the expanded child tax credit, are being jettisoned or curtailed because of Manchin’s concerns.

Their sense of frustration is heightened when they see Manchin holding enormous power over issues with which they feel he’s less familiar than they are.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Manchin’s position that a national paid leave program should be enacted with Republican support under regular order and left out of the reconciliation package didn’t make much sense.

“I think he doesn’t understand all of the dynamics of each of the senators who are interested in paid leave and what they each want,” she said. “I’ve been working with these senators on this for five years and he’s just getting read into it today. So he’s not as aware of their views and what they want as I am.”

Gillibrand was spotted chasing Manchin around on the Senate floor Tuesday, making repeated attempts to convince him to support compromise language on paid family leave, despite Manchin telling her “I’m done,” according to a senator who witnessed the exchange.

Adding to their resentment, Democratic senators complain that Manchin hasn’t yet signaled that he will support whatever final version of the Build Back Better Act emerges, despite optimistic pronouncements from President Biden.

“I think we’re going to be in good shape,” Biden confidently predicted after visiting Capitol Hill Thursday, the same day the White House unveiled a $1.75 trillion framework following weeks of intense talks with Manchin and centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the two main Senate holdouts.

Biden doubled down on his prediction Tuesday when he told reporters covering his visit to the COP26 climate conference in Scotland: “I believe that Joe will be there.”

The president said Manchin “will vote for this if we have in this proposal what he has anticipated.”

But Manchin on Tuesday punctured any impression that he tacitly supported the White House framework, even though it was tailored to address his concerns about overall cost, Medicare expansion and a national family paid leave program.

Manchin told reporters he never signed off on the proposal, adding, “I just think it’s going to take quite a while” to get a deal.

That landed with a thud among Democratic senators who last month set a goal of Oct. 22 for getting a framework agreement with Manchin.

Among other provisions, Democrats want to add language to the bill that would give legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants and initially hoped to give Medicare broad authority to negotiate lower prices for a wide range of medications — but neither goal is viewed as likely to be met at this point.  

Democrats on Tuesday announced they had reached an agreement on prescription drug pricing that proponents call a step forward but that is markedly less far-reaching than previous proposals.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) didn’t immediately endorse the agreement, which would empower Medicare to negotiate prices for a limited number of drugs and cap the out-of-pocket costs for seniors on Medicare.

“Let me take a final look at it,” he said.

Sanders argued at Tuesday’s lunch that the bill needs to be as “strong” and “robust” as possible, according to a senator in the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) acknowledged Tuesday that the prescription drug deal doesn’t go as far as many of his Democratic colleagues want, but nevertheless hailed the compromise as “a big step in helping the American people deal with the price of drugs.”

With anxiety and irritation rising within his caucus over slow progress, Schumer was under pressure to show progress on a big issue, Democratic senators said.

“By empowering Medicare to directly negotiate prices in Part B and Part D, this deal will directly reduce out-of-pocket drug spending for millions of patients every time they visit the pharmacy or doctor,” Schumer told reporters after the caucus meeting.

But if the deal holds, Medicare’s negotiating authority over drug prices will be much narrower than what Sanders and other advocates called for at the start of the debate.

They initially envisioned saving between $500 billion and $700 billion from empowering the federal government to negotiate lower prices. Now the savings are projected to be a fraction of that amount.

“There is quite a bit of frustration,” said a third senator who attended Tuesday’s lunch. “There’s frustration with particular issues like immigration and prescription drugs and then there’s frustration with Manchin.”

The senator explained that colleagues are getting angry with Manchin because “nobody knows what his final position is going to be.”

“There are a lot of angry members,” the senator added, asserting that a compromise struck between Democratic leaders and Sinema on a proposal to lower prescription drug costs “is nowhere near what I thought we should have done.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kirsten Gillibrand Kyrsten Sinema

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