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Manchin says he cannot support Biden’s social spending plan, imperiling ambitious agenda

Sen. Joe Manchin III leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Manchin III leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III appeared to pull the plug on the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda, saying Sunday that he cannot support the House-passed version of his party’s massive social spending package, prompting a sharp rejoinder from the White House and sending delicate negotiations into a spiral of bitter accusations.

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t,” Manchin of West Virginia said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. This is a no on this legislation.”

Manchin, the Democrats’ 50th vote in the evenly divided Senate, had wavered for months on whether he would support the $1.75-trillion package, which would extend child tax credits and provide new subsidies for child care, preschool and elder care. The proposal also included $555 billion to combat climate change — the lion’s share of Biden’s plan to curb carbon emissions as part of an uncertain global effort to avert a catastrophic further rise in the planet’s temperature.

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After talks last week between Biden and Manchin failed to resolve the impasse, the Senate left town Sunday morning without voting on the bill, which Democrats call “Build Back Better.” In a statement Thursday evening, Biden expressed optimism that talks would continue into the new year and eventually lead to an agreement.

But Manchin, whose reluctance to get behind the legislation has grown as inflation has risen to levels not seen in decades, sounded on Sunday like his mind is made up. It’s still possible, though seemingly unlikely, that the senator’s firm statement just days before Christmas does not foreclose the possibility of negotiations continuing in the new year, possibly on a pared-down version of the House-passed legislation.

“I’ve tried. I mean I really did. And the president was trying as hard as he could,” Manchin said. “He has an awful lot of irons in the fire right now. A lot. More on his plate than he needs for this to continue.”

In response, the White House issued a scathing statement by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who said the senator’s comments were “at odds with his discussions this week with the President, with White House staff, and with his own public utterances.”

Manchin, she said, had given Biden a “written outline” last week of a package he could support that would have been “the same size and scope” as the president’s framework, leading the administration to believe continued talks would eventually lead to an agreement.

“Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground,” Psaki continued. “If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent 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 Senate.”

The castigation, which came after months of diplomatic statements refusing to criticize Manchin or negotiate with him through the press, finally made the administration’s frustration clear. Yet Psaki vowed that negotiations would continue because the legislation was “too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year.”

Manchin, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation, did have an aide inform the administration of his position shortly before going on television Sunday. But he did not engage with the White House himself. He expanded on his reasoning — and offered even harsher words for his fellow Democrats — in a statement issued shortly after his television appearance.

“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” he said. “I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight.”

The senator, who is up for reelection in 2024 in a state that Biden lost by 40 points, also cited a second Congressional Budget Office report, which Republicans requested, that determined the legislation would cost $4.5 trillion if the subsidies and credits included were extended. The White House dismissed that CBO score as “fake,” arguing that the proposal as written would cost far less and be fully paid for.

In her statement, Psaki rebutted Manchin’s argument about inflation, noting the plan is “fully paid for” and that Biden has made clear to Manchin he doesn’t support extending the programs beyond what’s in the legislation. “That’s not what the President has proposed, not the bill the Senate would vote on, and not what the President would support,” she said.

But Republicans say any new benefits would probably be extended at a later date. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the lawmakers who sought the second CBO score probably in hopes of influencing Manchin, took a victory lap praising his Democratic colleague.

“The CBO analysis confirmed Senator Manchin’s worst fears about Build Back Better,” Graham said. “He has always stated that he will not support a bill full of gimmicks, a bill that added to the debt or a bill that made inflation worse.”

Several Democrats, apparently caught off guard by Manchin’s move, insisted that their agenda must still move forward.

“It’s not over yet,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) insisted during an appearance on MSNBC.

One of the most vulnerable House Democrats, Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who voted for the legislation despite the political risk in her conservative district, said in a statement that the provisions in the bill remain “critical for the long-term health, safety, and security of our families and our communities.” She blasted Manchin, saying it was “unacceptable” that he “walked away from productive negotiations.”

“We cannot act like this moment is the end,” she continued. “Children, families, and the future of our planet are counting on us.”

The defeat of Biden’s ambitious domestic program would mark a devastating setback for a president who suggested that his 36 years in the Senate would enable him to succeed in bridging divides and entered office envisioning a historic, President Franklin D. Roosevelt-styled agenda in response to the pandemic and resulting economic instability.

The legislation’s demise means the expiration next month of the 2021 child tax credit that had given qualifying families up to $300 per month for each child under age 6 and up to $250 per month for each child ages 6 through 17. Beyond that, new proposals to subsidize the cost of child care, preschool and elder care are off the table, for now. The White House had argued such benefits were a prudent response to rising inflation.

The development was exactly what House progressives were worried about in October, when they had initially withheld their support for the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill — the other half of Biden’s jobs agenda — out of concern Manchin and other Democratic moderates wouldn’t back the social spending legislation. They had planned to pass the package through a process known as budget reconciliation, which requires just 50 Senate votes, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie in the evenly divided Senate. No Republicans supported the measure.

The progressives eventually agreed to vote on the infrastructure package after Biden said he had gotten Manchin and others to agree in principle to a framework for the Build Back Better legislation.

But that agreement does not appear to have held.

The most outspoken Senate progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was among the first to react to Manchin’s statement. During an interview on CNN, Sanders said that Manchin will have to explain to his constituents in West Virginia, “a state that is struggling,” why he’d stand in the way of new Medicare subsidies for dental coverage and investments aimed at combating climate change.

“Let Mr. Manchin explain to the people why he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to powerful special interests,” Sanders said, calling for a full Senate vote on the legislation next month even if the bill fails.

“We’ve been dealing with Mr. Manchin for month after month after month,” Sanders said. “But if he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”


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