Is Manchin Duping Democrats Again?

Is Manchin Duping Democrats Again?

The omnipotent senator is said to be floating a new inflation-busting package. But he insists there are “no formal talks.” How is that going to work?


It’s hard to know how to respond to Senator Joe Manchin’s wildly erratic and self-centered maneuverings around President Biden’s ill-starred “Build Back Better” plan. We know you’re not supposed to negotiate with terrorists—of course, I’m not calling him a terrorist—but it’s fairly routine to negotiate with hostage-takers. And Manchin has taken most of Biden’s signature agenda hostage. First he cut it in half, and then he reneged on what colleagues, and even Biden, considered firm agreements, walking away from the whole thing just before Christmas, claiming it was time to deal with the federal deficit instead.

Still, Biden and Senate Democrats seemed keen on getting at least some of the hostages back. It was Manchin who was refusing to negotiate, or even talk about next steps. But then, as if he was wilting from the sudden loss of media sunlight, Manchin came back. Sort of. After Biden’s State of the Union speech last week, the West Virginia senator was said to be “floating a package” that he’s touting as an inflation-buster: to cut the deficit, reduce prescription drug prices, fund certain climate change measures, and reform the tax code. If it’s missing some of the most important BBB programs—particularly the child tax credit, which briefly cut child poverty by 40 percent—the best that can be said for it is that none of its core tenets are objectionable. That we know of yet, anyway.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer seemed to endorse Manchin’s approach in a Monday letter to Senate colleagues, pushing renewed action on legislation to deal with “rising costs” via the Democrat-only budget reconciliation process: “to lower the rising cost of energy, prescription drugs and health care, and the costs of raising a family,” he wrote.

Exactly what Manchin is up to is mysterious, though. “It looks like there’s been some movements with Sen. Manchin—that’s good. I can tell you, our caucus is ready to move a reconciliation bill,” Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland told NBC News. Colorado Senator Mike Bennet put it this way: “Manchin said start with a blank sheet of paper. Well, he’s put some pencil marks on a blank sheet of paper.” Manchin has floated some of his ideas in recent media interviews. But he again insisted on Sunday’s Meet the Press that there were “no formal talks going on.” Just pencil marks. Got it.

Still, major media outlets are assembling the Schumer letter and Cardin’s account of Manchin’s “movements” and Bennet’s “pencil marks on a blank piece of paper” into a renewed effort to jump-start Biden’s domestic agenda. Something must be afoot.

Forgive me if I’m not ready to get excited about this non-deal. For one thing, although it’s said to be popular among vulnerable frontline senators facing reelection in November, they don’t seem to agree on everything either. Colorado’s Bennet would like to see the child tax credit restored; Manchin has essentially ruled that out (by the way, Manchin isn’t facing the voters himself until 2024). Arizona Senator Mark Kelly seems sour on an ambitious bill, but would like to see a deal on prescription drug pricing, calling the costs borne by Arizona seniors “fundamentally unfair,” adding, “If and when that becomes an opportunity, yeah, we will refocus on that.”

But it’s Kelly’s Arizona colleague, Kyrsten Sinema, who has been a barrier to certain prescription drug reforms. Once a staunch proponent, Sinema got more funding from Pharma PACs in the 2020 election cycle than she’d received in three terms in the US House. She reportedly reached a deal with Biden on a watered-down version of prescription drug reform, but the overall BBB plan fell apart before that could be hammered out. Does Manchin have Sinema on board with his version (if there is even a “version”)?

It’s also unclear what Manchin’s ideal climate change reforms would involve. He’s been calling for a ban on Russian oil and gas imports, and has backed increased US production to mitigate likely price increases. He’s long favored increased fossil fuel production and indeed is an energy magnate in his own right. It’s hard to imagine Democrats taking their climate change cues from Manchin, but they have no choice but to at least consider whatever he is proposing—when and if he proposes it.

An otherwise serviceable Politico piece on the non-talks contains this howler, however, about how BBB fell apart “following months of battling with progressives.” Excuse me? I have made this point before, but let me try again: Progressives represented the majority position on the bill; they represented the Biden position on the bill; progressive leaders allied with centrists and battled some of their own members to get a vote on an outline in November. It was conservative Democrats—mainly Manchin, sometimes Sinema—who were “battling” with the majority of their Democratic colleagues, and sometimes with their own prior positions.

Indeed, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal signaled her willingness to work with Manchin on his new framework almost immediately upon news reports about it. “We’re open to that approach,” the Seattle representative told The Washington Post last week.

To Politico, the always-sensible Senator Sherrod Brown warned against pointless discussions that could backfire, leading to snarky headlines “that we’re talking to Manchin and this is going here and we’re failing.” Indeed, “Dems in disarray” is irresistible. Jayapal too told the Post that progressives want to see legislative text that Manchin supports, and then “let’s have a conversation.” (The American Prospect’s David Dayen has the best piece on all the Democratic tsuris here.)

Progressives are likely to get behind Manchin’s proposals, if they’re at all serious, because several are at least better than nothing. But the sooner it’s recast entirely, and not as some wan rebrand of BBB, the better, politically and psychologically. The $3.7 trillion proposal was going to be Biden’s 21st-century New Deal, with landmark investments in child care, elder care, and the “human infrastructure” that our uneven economy and our vulnerable children, seniors, and low-wage workers desperately need. Appallingly, those dreams are at best deferred, in favor of President Manchin’s “My Deal,” with cutting the deficit and corraling inflation his top concerns.

That last point, though, is where there can and should be common ground between Manchin and the left. The rising price of gas and groceries hits working- and middle-class Americans the hardest; tax reform that puts some of that money back in their pockets, while raising rates on the wealthy, should be broadly popular. Of course, Sinema also came out against tax rate hikes last year.

It seems that unless and until Manchin can cut a deal with fellow obstructionist Sinema on tax rates and prescription drug reform, most progressives should keep themselves busy on other fronts.

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