When Democrats’ year-long push to protect voting rights failed on the Senate floor Wednesday night, it raised the curtain on the second and likely final act of the president’s sweeping domestic agenda — the massive investments in climate, education, and health care upon which President Joe Biden has hitched his legacy and his party has staked its midterms fate.
Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he plans to break up the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act to “get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later.” On the Hill, that approach is more targeted: make Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), the president’s chief centrist holdout, an offer he can’t refuse. There is, Democrats swear, a deal to be made — and soon, in order to give the president a legislative achievement to tout at his State of the Union address in April.
But what’s happening this time around doesn’t resemble the rounds of negotiations Democrats endured in the first year of Biden’s presidency. Instead, they seem resigned to build legislation around the whims of their fickle colleague from West Virginia. “We should pass whatever can pass — it’s as simple as that,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) says. “We are all using our brains and our egos to make this more complicated than necessary.”
Early ideas revolve around what was on the table the last time Manchin almost got to “yes,” such as universal pre-K, an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and $555 billion in funding to combat climate change, according to multiple Democratic Senate aides. There are lots of places where Manchin’s in lockstep with his fellow Democrats: Manchin and Sanders, for example, agree upon an amount for drug pricing negotiation and believe that what passed the House didn’t go far enough to lower costs, according to a source familiar with conversations. And despite his own investments in coal, Manchin is pretty settled on climate funding, too. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who has led the charge on home care for the elderly and disabled, told me she’s “hopeful” it stays on the table. “Joe Manchin thinks it matters to the people of West Virginia,” she says.
This effort has the side effect of rewarding Manchin for bad behavior. House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion package that met most of Manchin’s demands last fall. All Senate Democrats had been prepared to pass it, too — until Manchin went on Fox News in December to declare negotiations dead. The West Virginia senator’s demands have ranged from inconsistent to elusive, and whichever policy is dominating headlines seems to dictate what Manchin rejects. He walked away from his own $1.8 trillion offer when talks took a contentious turn last month, and again on Thursday morning, telling CNN that he’s “starting from scratch” on Build Back Better and saying he first wanted Democrats to address covid, inflation and the national debt.
Manchin’s colleagues make only one ask of him as they jettison priorities on his behalf: “We need to know what Sen Manchin is for,” says Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). “I don’t want to see another many weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating to get to ‘yes’ when there isn’t a ‘yes’ to be gotten.”
What’s unlikely to be included: funding for affordable community college and a renewal of the child tax credit. Those are “two really big components that I feel strongly about,” Biden said during his press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
The whole process is a tough pill for the president to swallow: This next phase will put another deep cut in the transformational change he and his party pitched, and far from what Democrats had hoped to achieve in their once-in-a-long time unified control of government. Already the president has shrunk his ambitions from his $6 trillion opening bid down to $1.75 trillion to meet the demands of Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). “You can’t deny reality,” says Smith, one of the Senate’s most progressive members. “Make the progress that you can and push as hard as you can to build support for the rest.”
Not every policy will go quietly. One Democratic Senate aide raised affordable child care as a prime example. The latest surge in the pandemic proves that child care “is a necessity, not a luxury,” the aide said, and chief advocates like Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) plan to fight for it. One idea that’s circulating: Put forth a package that includes the core ideas with broad Democratic support — such as climate, pre-k, and child care — and hold a vote on it. “Sometimes, the best way to know where we are is to have a vote,” Smith explained. “That can be the very best way to find out where people stand.”
Formal conversations about Build Back Better’s next phase have not yet begun, according to Democratic Hill aides. Manchin said earlier this month that he hadn’t returned to the negotiating table since he went on Fox News in December to declare himself done. But he has signaled he’s open to trying: ”I’ve never turned down talks with anybody,” he told reporters last week. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain primed the pump in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, promising to get the conversations rolling soon (and vowing that talks with Manchin “will proceed directly and privately”).
Whatever happens, Democrats want to see it happen soon. Disapproval over the president’s performance has reached an all-time high, and Democrats are beginning to squirm over what it is they’ll sell to voters in the fall, save for promises not kept. The White House is asking frustrated Democratic lawmakers to focus on what they have accomplished, Politico reported. Democrats passed both a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package and a $500 billion infrastructure law, after all, with very few Republican votes. “They didn’t do a damn thing for it,” Dingell said of the infrastructure bill. “We need to go out and take credit for what’s really important.”