President Joe Biden and Senate Democratic leaders were shocked when West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin screwed his fellow Democrats over on Sunday, with an announcement that, after months of tortured, behind-closed-doors negotiations, he would vote against Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. White House press secretary Jen Psaki ripped into Manchin, scorching the West Virginian for making a “sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position” and accusing the senator of a “breach of his commitments.”
“I was surprised,” said Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), Biden’s closest ally in the Senate and a key lieutenant of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
But not everyone in Washington was surprised that the inside game failed.
Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and members of the progressive Squad in the House began arguing months ago—in conjunction with grassroots activists in West Virginia and nationally—that it was necessary to take a more aggressive approach to the West Virginia senator’s delaying tactics. They refused to give Manchin the benefit of the doubt, and called out his transparent attempts to serve the interests of corporate campaign donors—and his own self-interest—rather than the best interests of the people of West Virginia, his party, and his country.
Sanders issued an initial salvo in October, in the form of an opinion piece published in the Sunday edition of West Virginia’s most influential daily newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Arguing that Manchin was on the wrong side of “a historic opportunity to support the working families of West Virginia,” Sanders explained that the Build Back Better plan was essential legislation that would benefit West Virginians.
“The Build Back Better plan is not only vitally important for seniors, but it is enormously important for working families and their children,” wrote Sanders. “As a result of the $300 direct payments to working class parents which began in the American Rescue Plan, we have cut childhood poverty in our country by half. It would be unconscionable to see those payments end, which is exactly what will happen if we do not pass this bill.”
Then he got specific about why the plan was stalled. Yes, he noted, it was opposed “by every Republican in Congress as well as the drug companies, the insurance companies, the fossil fuel industry and the billionaire class.” Yet, he explained, Republican obstruction wasn’t the primary factor delaying action on what began as a $3.5 trillion plan to expand Medicare and Medicaid, provide free higher education for working-class students, fight child poverty, and address the climate crisis. “[The] political problem we face is that in a 50-50 Senate we need every Democratic senator to vote ‘yes.’ We now have only 48. Two Democratic senators remain in opposition, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.”
Manchin was furious, which should have been a sign that Sanders had hit exactly the right nerve. It was time for Democratic leaders to call Manchin’s bluff, by making it absolutely and unequivocally clear that the senior senator from West Virginia was not representing the people of the Mountaineer State—the majority of which, polls showed, favored the programs outlined by Biden and Sanders in the Build Back Better agenda. Unfortunately, the president and top Democrats refused to confront Manchin publicly. They chose to keep negotiating behind the scenes, and to keep promising that the corporate-aligned senator could be trusted.
There was never any evidence that this was the case. Yet, after the Democrats suffered serious setbacks in the November 2 off-year elections—which many analysts attributed to voter frustration with a lack of progress on the president’s domestic agenda—the White House worked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get things moving. To do this, Pelosi and her allies proposed a break with the strategy of linking passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which Manchin and other corporate Democrats wanted to move quickly, with the Build Back Better Act. Linking the measures gave the White House and more progressive members of Congress leverage in negotiations with Manchin, but Pelosi got most Democrats, including many prominent progressives, to accept separate action on the proposals. The promise was that the House would pass both—getting the infrastructure bill onto Biden’s desk for a signature and launching a rapid “closing of the deal” negotiation with Manchin on Build Back Better.
Omar and several members of the Squad balked at that strategy, effectively suggesting that Manchin couldn’t be trusted. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Omar broke with fellow Democrats and voted against the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, as did Representatives Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). Their argument was clear: It made no sense to give up the last real bargaining chip they had without an assurance that the $1.75 trillion social spending package would be approved.
The infrastructure bill passed the House, with a handful of Republicans joining most Democrats to vote “yes.” But Manchin gave no assurances. And now he’s all over Fox News talking about blocking the bill, arguing that he’s “done all he can.”
“Let’s be clear: Manchin’s excuse is bullshit,” said Omar. “The people of West Virginia would directly benefit from childcare, pre-Medicare expansion, and long term care, just like Minnesotans.”
“This is exactly what we warned would happen if we separated Build Back Better from infrastructure,” Omar added.
Manchin couldn’t be trusted. The right strategy was to build a grassroots movement in West Virginia to pressure him to do the right thing, as the Rev. William Barber II and the Poor People’s Campaign proposed. Barber—like Sanders and the Squad—recognized, even if top Democrats did not, that it was going to take more than backroom negotiations to move Manchin.
“Joe Manchin has been a liar all the way,” Barber tweeted on Sunday. “The only way to deal with him is to expose him. And let his own people, poor people, low-wage workers, and religious leaders do it,” he added. “To do this the week of Christmas is a sign of just how messed up he is!”