Joe Manchin Says He Can’t Support Build Back Better Act

WASHINGTON — Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said on Sunday that he could not support President Biden’s signature $2.2 trillion social safety net, climate and tax bill, dooming his party’s drive to pass its marquee domestic policy legislation as written.

The comments from Mr. Manchin, a longtime centrist holdout, dealt the latest and perhaps a fatal blow to the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda, barely a day after senators left Washington for the year after Democrats conceded they could not yet push through any of their top legislative priorities, from the social policy bill to a voting rights overhaul.

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” Mr. Manchin said on “Fox News Sunday,” citing concerns about adding to the national debt, rising inflation and the spread of the latest coronavirus variant. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. This is a no.”

In a statement released shortly afterward, he was scathing toward his own party, declaring that “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.”

“I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion” and with inflation hurting Americans “with no end in sight,” he said.

It amounted to Mr. Manchin’s most definitive rejection of the sprawling measure, which party leaders muscled through the House in November, after maintaining a drumbeat of concern about its cost and ambitious scope. With Republicans united in opposing the legislation, Democrats needed the votes of all 50 senators who caucus with their party for the measure to pass in an evenly divided Senate, effectively handing each of them veto power.

Mr. Manchin’s condemnation of the measure also underscores how White House officials may have overestimated their ability to persuade him to embrace a more generous package — and how his often murky statements may have fed their optimism, despite his serious misgivings about the cost.

Mr. Manchin’s comments on Sunday provoked an unusually blistering broadside from Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, who accused Mr. Manchin in a lengthy statement of reneging on his promises. As recently as Tuesday, Ms. Psaki said, Mr. Manchin had pledged to work with administration officials to finalize a compromise agreement and had even shared his own outline for legislation that mirrored the size of Mr. Biden’s initial $1.85 trillion framework.

“If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort,” she said, “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.”

Mr. Manchin outlined the conditions for his vote in a July 28 memo signed with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, which became public in late September, saying that it must be fully paid for and that any revenue over $1.5 trillion must go toward lowering the federal budget deficit. That memo also included limits on who could benefit from new programs and a ban on repealing fossil-fuel tax credits — and a warning that his vote would not be guaranteed if his conditions were exceeded.

However, Mr. Manchin has largely focused his attention on what he does not want in the package and has been vague about what programs and policies he might support.

In recent weeks, he has continued to insist that the bill shrink, and that it refrain from short-term budget gimmicks, which would most likely require lawmakers to fund fewer programs over the long term.

It remained unclear on Sunday whether an overhaul of the legislation could both salvage Mr. Manchin’s support and retain enough liberal votes in both chambers.

The impasse jeopardizes Mr. Biden’s reputation as a dealmaker — he had campaigned on his ability to capitalize on nearly four decades of Senate experience to helm negotiations and unite his party’s narrow majorities in both chambers. Mr. Biden had poured weeks of work into talks with Mr. Manchin, inviting the senator for breakfast at his Delaware home in October and insisting that the West Virginian could ultimately be swayed.

At stake is what Mr. Biden has hailed as transformative, New Deal-style legislation that would touch virtually every American life from birth to death, from subsidies for child care to price controls for prescription drugs to funding for the construction and maintenance of public housing.

Failure to pass the measure also would deal a setback to vulnerable Democratic lawmakers bracing for what is expected to be a challenging midterm campaign in the coming months. They had hoped that passage of the bill would help their political standing, given that Republicans are widely expected to reclaim control of the House.

“After months of negotiations, one Democratic U.S. senator has now summarily walked away from productive negotiations,” said Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat who represents a swing district. “That is unacceptable, and we cannot act like this moment is the end. Children, families and the future of our planet are counting on us.”

The legislation, originally sketched out as a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint, had already been curtailed substantially to satisfy Mr. Manchin and a few other centrists, through months of laborious negotiations.

As it is, an expanded $300 monthly payment to most families with children, which Mr. Manchin voted for as part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package in March, will lapse at the end of the year without an extension included in the package. Long-sought promises to patch gaps in the American health care system, from expanding coverage to an estimated 3.4 million Americans to improving Medicare benefits and regulating drug prices, will go unfilled.

The senator’s staff informed party leadership and the White House of his position Sunday morning before his televised appearance, according to one official familiar with the outreach, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the tone of Ms. Psaki’s statement was a sharp break from months of White House handling of Mr. Manchin — and clearly expressed surprise and a sense of betrayal.

Just last week, even as Mr. Biden confirmed that talks with Mr. Manchin had stalled, he waxed optimistic, saying that he believed that “we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan.”

Publicly and privately, administration officials have declined to characterize Mr. Manchin’s positions or demands in the negotiations, or say what assurances he had offered to support the legislation as it was being created.

That changed Sunday, when Ms. Psaki said Mr. Manchin had pledged to back the framework Mr. Biden announced this fall and had submitted his own offer for a bill in person at the White House last week, a meeting the officials had not previously divulged.

Mr. Manchin’s blunt condemnation of the measure on Sunday upended a precarious détente within the party on Capitol Hill. House moderates fumed that they had voted for a measure that would not become law and liberals accused Mr. Manchin of single-handedly torpedoing their ability to deliver on the campaign promises that they argue had delivered them control of both Congress and the White House.

Party leaders had initially sought to move the expansive climate and tax plan, known as the Build Back Better Act, in tandem with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill Mr. Manchin and a bipartisan group of senators helped negotiate earlier this year. But to satisfy moderates anxious for a legislative victory while talks on the broader plan continued, the infrastructure plan was decoupled and became law.

Furious liberal lawmakers, who had long warned that there was no guarantee conservative Democrats would support the more ambitious package if the two bills were not paired, demanded answers from party leaders who had promised both bills would ultimately become law.

“We knew that Manchin and the Senate could not be trusted to pass Build Back Better when the time came to pass it,” Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, one of six progressive Democrats who had voted against the infrastructure bill, said in an interview. “And that is where we stand now.”

Republicans were gleeful at Mr. Manchin’s stance and the intraparty division, having sought to justify his longstanding concerns about the legislation’s cost and funding.

“President Biden’s mega-spending bill is dead and Joe Manchin put the nail in the coffin,” crowed Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska. “With a divided country, a 50-50 Senate and blowout inflation, the American people don’t want to upend this country with nakedly partisan legislation.”

In his statement, Mr. Manchin also expressed concern that Mr. Biden’s marquee bill would move the nation’s economy away from fossil fuels too rapidly, “at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow,” and warned of “catastrophic consequences.”

Climate experts said they believe there is little room left to compromise on the measure’s major climate change provisions. Mr. Manchin already has rejected the part of the bill that would have been the single most effective tool to reduce greenhouse gases, a clean electricity program that would have rewarded power plants that switched from burning fossil fuels to solar, wind and other clean sources, and punished those that did not.

He also complained that his colleagues had been spending months employing budgetary tricks to make the legislation appear less costly rather than truly paring it down by removing programs, citing an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office that found the package would add $3 trillion to the nation’s deficit if its programs were extended indefinitely.

Many programs, as written, would expire before the end of the decade. Some Democrats on Sunday renewed calls for, as Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington put it, “prioritizing doing a few things well for longer” as a potential path forward.

Jim Tankersley, Lisa Friedman and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

The Tycoon Herald