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How Manchin stole Democrats’ Christmas (or at least their hopes of passing the Build Back Better Act by then)

Democrats all the way up to the White House were shocked by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement that he would not support the party’s social policy bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin’s support is necessary because of the slim margin by which Democrats control the Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin’s support is necessary because of the slim margin by which Democrats control the Senate.
REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have been urging their colleagues to pass the Build Back Better Act by Christmas, or at the very least by the end of the year. Passing the $1.75 trillion bill was one of the last big priorities that Democrats in Congress have set before wrapping up and heading out to their winter recess. Unfortunately for Democrats, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — a Democrat himself — made an announcement Sunday that means the bill is essentially dead as it’s currently written.

“Where I’m at right now, the inflation that I was concerned about, it’s not transitory; it’s real, it’s harming every West Virginian,” Manchin told “Fox News Sunday” host Bret Baier. “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation…I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.”

Manchin’s support is necessary because of the slim margin by which Democrats control the Senate. Even with Manchin’s support, Democrats have just 50 votes and rely on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Under ordinary Senate rules, a filibuster would have doomed the Build Back Better Act, but Democrats had planned to pass the bill under the special rules of budget reconciliation, which means legislation cannot be filibustered and needs only a simple majority to pass. Without Manchin, though, Democrats lack even that simple majority.

The bill was a big priority for Democrats and President Joe Biden. If passed, it would create major new social spending programs including one that would subsidize child care costs based on family income, with some families paying nothing and no families paying over seven percent of their yearly income in child care costs. The bill would also set up universal Pre-K, fund more affordable housing and create initiatives to combat climate change and promote clean energy.

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Now, with Manchin declaring his opposition, Democrats are scrambling to figure out the future of the bill even as lawmakers head back to their home states for winter recess.

Inflation (or inflated?) concerns

Although Manchin met with Biden last Monday about the bill and seemed to be in negotiations with the president, he dropped a bombshell on “Fox News Sunday” Sunday saying that he was effectively done with the Build Back Better Act altogether.

Manchin took issue with nearly every major provision in the $1.75 trillion bill, including a provision to fight climate change, Medicare expansion, paid family leave, the extension of the Child Tax Credit and more. Manchin told “Fox News Sunday” he’s concerned that another big federal spending package coming this soon after the passage of the infrastructure bill would further fuel the already high levels of inflation the country is seeing.

Manchin isn’t alone in his concern about current high levels of inflation. A recent poll by the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors shows that nearly two-thirds of West Virginia voters think that the Build Back Better Act will make inflation worse, and a slightly higher proportion think that Congress “should slow down and get the Build Back Better Act right.”

But not everyone agrees that the spending in the Build Back Better Act will drive more inflation. Fifty-six economists released a letter partnered with the left-leaning advocacy group Invest in American Action, claiming that the Build Back Better Act would “alleviate some of the strain caused by inflation.”

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith also said that the Build Back Better Act will help mitigate rising prices associated with widespread inflation.

“When I talk to Minnesotans about what is keeping them up at night, a lot of people are talking about the worries about rising prices. That gives me urgency to pass this bill because we see a rising crisis in health care, and this bill is going to lower prescription drug prices,” Smith said. She also called the bill “transformational” for the child care industry and for the parents who struggle to afford child care.

Senate Democrats furiously scramble to find a solution

Especially after Biden met with Manchin and seemed — at least to outsiders — to be optimistic about the status of the bill, the White House was furious about Manchin’s betrayal. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a blistering statement Sunday in response to Manchin, saying that his statements on “Fox News Sunday” were “at odds” with his discussions with Biden, White House staff and his own previous statements. Psaki said Manchin had also submitted his own written outline for Build Back Better that was “the same size and scope” as the president’s framework and covered many of the same priorities. Psaki called Manchin’s statements on Fox a “sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and the Senate.”

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Manchin’s statement couldn’t have come at a worse time for Democrats, as the winter recess has already technically begun and many lawmakers are headed back to their home states for the holidays.

Smith was also unhappy with Manchin’s statements. In a press release, the senator took shots at Manchin, calling his decision a “reckless posture” that “imperils” the Build Back Better agenda. “‘I just can’t get there.’ I’ve heard that before when Senator Manchin killed off the Clean Electricity Plan,” Smith said. “He was wrong then and he’s dangerously wrong now. Failing to pass Build Back Better condemns us to higher energy prices, fewer jobs, and a back seat to those that take action and lead on technology and innovation. This stance is downright unpatriotic, and it utterly fails to address the climate crisis.”

Fifth District Rep. Ilhan Omar, who fought hard to get a vote on Build Back Better earlier in the year — even voting “no” to the infrastructure bill passed in November because it was not paired with a Build Back Better vote — said “Manchin’s excuse is bullshit.”

“This is exactly what we warned would happen if we separated Build Back Better from infrastructure,” Omar tweeted Sunday.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to his colleagues this morning saying that the Senate will still consider the Build Back Better Act “very early in the new year” so that every member of the Senate has the opportunity to make their position known once Congress resumes. Schumer ended the letter dramatically: “To further discuss these critical issues, we will hold a virtual Special Caucus on the evening of Tuesday, December 21, the longest night of the year.”