Timeline, Final Bill Remain Unclear
On Sunday morning, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – long acknowledged as the pivotal 50th vote needed to pass the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) – used an appearance on national television to announce that he could not support the BBBA in its current form. Citing high inflation, a growing federal debt, and the Omicron variant outbreak, Manchin abruptly and unexpectedly ended negotiations, having given the White House only a twenty-minute heads up.
The White House and Congressional Democrats went quickly from disbelief to rage at the turn of events. House moderates fumed that they went on the record supporting an expansive spending bill that will not become law. House progressives were angry that they voted for the Bipartisan Infrastructure & Jobs Act with the promise of the passage of BBBA, and came up empty. Senate Democratic leadership and the White House felt blindsided by Manchin’s sudden opposition – especially after what the White House termed as “ongoing and productive negotiations” as late as last week.
Some in Washington – including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and New Democrat Coalition Chairman Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) – have floated passing a scaled down version of BBBA, especially if it is tied to additional COVID-19 emergency relief. Manchin himself has since spoken on what changes he might be willing to support; he wants the bill to go through “regular order” and focus on rolling back the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. He has additionally indicated that the bill should include means-tested benefits and shrink the number of programs in the package to cover a 10-year budget window. It is still too soon to tell what revised legislation could look like, but the bill’s collapse right before the holidays nonetheless marks a defeat for the President and Congressional Democrats.
In response to Manchin’s about-face, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) released a Dear Colleague letter charting a new course of action for the Senate. After the holiday break, the Senate will vote on the BBBA as is, and will also vote to change the filibuster rules to include a carveout for legislation involving voting rights. Both measures will likely fail.
While Democrats across the political spectrum torched Manchin, it is important to keep three things in mind when surveying the political landscape:
1. Over the past 18 months, Manchin has supported about $6 trillion in new spending, including the American Rescue Plan, which passed through the reconciliation process.
2. Manchin is probably not the only moderate Democrat who opposes the BBBA. Should the Senate in fact vote on the bill, Leader Schumer will be forcing every Senator to go on record with their support (or opposition) — a move that will come with risks. In an increasingly hostile political environment for Democrats, forcing moderate Senators in competitive races to take a tough vote has the potential to become a political albatross.
3. Despite all the media chatter about Manchin changing parties, he has voted with the President’s agenda 97.4% of the time. Even if he changes his affiliation to “independent,” observers expect that he would still caucus with the Democrats.