Joe Manchin's 'Scaled-Back' Framework May Be Better Than It Sounds

Prioritizing certain initiatives over others is hard, but that could be what it takes to save Build Back Better.

It looks like negotiations over President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation are only mostly dead — which, as any fan of “The Princess Bride” knows, means they are also slightly alive.

This wasn’t so apparent last weekend, when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) went on Fox News to say he was a “no” on the bill that House Democrats passed last month. Shortly afterward, Manchin issued a press release reaffirming his opposition. The statements were stronger than anything he’d said previously, and drew blistering rebukes from a variety of top Democratic officials ― including White House press secretary Jen Psaki and House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), both of whom accused Manchin of negotiating in bad faith.

But Biden, who has since spoken directly with Manchin, vowed on Tuesday that “Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done.” Jayapal also spoke to Manchin and asked him to be more specific about what in the House bill he could support and what he couldn’t. It was a clear attempt to lower the temperature, restart a dialogue and craft a consensus bill that can pass both houses.

That won’t be easy, given the considerable distance between Manchin and his party’s leaders. Manchin has raised a series of objections to specific initiatives, including the direct subsidy to families with parents that Manchin says could create an “entitlement society” but that Democrats see as the centerpiece of their strategy to fight child poverty.

It's not clear whether Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), seen here in November, is sincere about trying to find a compromise version of President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" proposal. But the conceptual framework he's floated could yield significant legislation.
It's not clear whether Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), seen here in November, is sincere about trying to find a compromise version of President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" proposal. But the conceptual framework he's floated could yield significant legislation.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

Manchin has also said he objects to the bill’s basic structure. By funding several of the programs for only a few years with the expectation that future lawmakers will renew them, Manchin says, Democratic leaders have disguised the bill’s true cost ― which, he says, is $3 trillion over 10 years, rather than the $1.85 trillion in the official Congressional Budget Office projection.

The best hope for moving forward may lie in an alternative framework that, according to The Washington Post, Manchin gave the White House last week. It would include the bill’s climate and pre-kindergarten initiatives, along with improvements to the Affordable Care Act, funding all of them for the full 10 years of the budget window. It would leave out most of the bill’s other components.

It’s difficult to know how serious this proposal is, given that it’s not public, or whether Manchin sincerely wants to get to “yes.” Even if he does, reconstructing legislation and assembling votes for it at this late stage in the process would be difficult. Progressives in particular are likely to resist endorsing a bill that is already being described in the media as a “scaled-back” version of the House bill.

But that description is not quite right. Whatever Manchin’s motives, whatever the consistency or merits of his views, a bill that includes fewer initiatives but is funded permanently might actually be better as both politics and policy ― as a number of liberal writers and thinkers have been arguing for weeks.

In fact, it’s possible this is the type of bill that Biden and party leaders would have tried passing from the very beginning, if not for the unusual, ultimately fleeting political circumstances that prevailed in late 2020 and early 2021.

The Choices Biden And Leaders Avoided Before

The interval between the final stages of a campaign and the first weeks of a presidential term is typically when a new administration works with congressional leaders to figure out what legislation it will try to pass and when.

That is when former President Barack Obama and his allies decided to spend Obama’s first year seeking legislation on health care (which passed) and climate change (which didn’t). Likewise, it’s when former President Donald Trump and his allies decided to focus on Obamacare repeal (which failed) and tax cuts (which succeeded).

Setting priorities is never easy for a new administration, because it means postponing the push for some initiatives, neglecting the needs those initiatives address and disappointing their champions. That’s why, to this day, so many immigration reform advocates are furious with Obama and Democratic leaders over their failure to take up their cause right away. But an administration has only so much bandwidth, so much political capital and so much time at its disposal. The same goes for congressional leaders. And so in 2009, they decided to focus on a few initiatives, even though they wanted to promote them all.

“A bill that includes fewer initiatives but is funded permanently might actually be better as both politics and policy.”

That wasn’t the approach in late 2020 and early 2021, and the emergency mentality of the pandemic was a big reason why. Economic relief measures were expiring while large swaths of the population remained out of work, unable to pay for basics like food and housing. Key sectors like child care were on the verge of collapse because of closures and staff shortages, panicking families and further undermining the economy. Vaccines were finally available, but distribution was a mess and badly in need of funding.

Into this crisis stepped a new administration that hadn’t yet prioritized among its campaign promises because, until the surprise Democratic Senate victories in Georgia, it hadn’t expected its party would have control of Congress. At the same time, Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress were determined not to make the mistake of Obama’s first year, when Democrats frittered away so much time and political capital trying unsuccessfully to win Republican support for their initiatives.

Instead, before the administration was even two months old, Biden and Democratic leaders passed the American Rescue Plan through the budget reconciliation process, which requires just 50 votes in the Senate. No Senate Republicans voted for it, and Manchin was the last to sign on with what was, in the context of that legislation, a relatively modest concession: giving up on a proposed increase in the minimum wage.

Many within and outside the party began counting on Manchin’s support for the rest of the Democratic agenda, assuming a similar negotiation process would get it done. That thinking shaped the construction of Build Back Better, which included most of the major initiatives Biden had embraced as a candidate, from once-in-a-generation action to slow climate change to a new entitlement for child care. The idea was to reprise not Obama’s or Bill Clinton’s first term, but something more like Franklin Roosevelt’s.

But FDR had larger majorities that, among other things, were willing to commit a lot more government spending to launching new programs. Biden’s opening bid, which he constructed together with Democratic leaders from both houses, envisioned $3.5 trillion over 10 years. Biden’s plan was actually a preemptive compromise, well short of the $6 trillion that Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) thought it would take to fund the agenda fully ― and it was still way more than Democrats like Manchin were willing to spend.

Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at November's signing ceremony for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Manchin's opposition to the House version of Build Back Better may force them to make the kind of choices among Democratic initiatives they had hoped to avoid.
Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at November's signing ceremony for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Manchin's opposition to the House version of Build Back Better may force them to make the kind of choices among Democratic initiatives they had hoped to avoid.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

That led to a second round of downsizing ― and the decision to start limiting funding for several initiatives to only a few years, in the hopes that their popularity would compel a future Congress to extend the programs before they expire. It would be a huge gamble, all the more so because several programs depend on state officials agreeing to participate. The lack of permanent funding could convince more of them to stay out.

An example is Build Back Better’s two early childhood initiatives, one to revamp child care assistance and one to establish universal pre-kindergarten programs. Successfully implemented, the programs could save some families many thousands of dollars a year, ideally allowing kids to end up in better care and working parents to feel a lot less financial distress.

The bill envisions both initiatives as traditional federal-state partnerships, with Washington putting up most of the money in exchange for states covering the rest and arranging their programs to comply with new federal rules. In its estimate of the program’s cost, CBO assumed a third of states would turn down the child care money and 40% would turn down the pre-K funding, according to an internal document obtained by the People’s Policy Project.

CBO analysts were just guessing at this, and it’s possible more states would participate. It’s also possible fewer would. And the fewer states in the program, the easier it would be for lawmakers to let the program lapse, turning a transformational change into a temporary one.

The Choices Biden And Leaders Face Now

Unless Manchin is bluffing, the only way to get his vote and pass a bill is to pick a few plans to fund fully ― which, inevitably, would mean picking a few plans not to fund at all.

The contours of the reconfiguration would depend heavily on whether it includes an extension of those direct payments to families with kids, the child tax credit, that the American Rescue Plan increased temporarily. It’s arguably the simplest, easiest policy in Build Back Better to implement, since it’s already on the books, and it has already had dramatic effects on poverty. But with a 10-year cost of $1.65 trillion, it would soak up almost all of the money in a $1.85 trillion bill.

Democrats could opt for a smaller version of the credit that would still do a lot of good. Or, if Manchin were amenable, they could pass a one-year extension that would avoid cutting off the money next year, with the expectation that Congress would then work on a bipartisan bill to extend the cuts permanently, using a proposal from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) as its basis. (Former Democratic Senate aide Adam Jentleson sketched out such a scenario in the Post this week.)

Either option would leave room for most if not all of the climate initiatives ― which most Democrats deem essential because the warming planet is such an existential threat ― and then some combination of the programs to help families with child care and health care.

“A year ago this time ... Democrats would have been giddy at the idea of funding even one of Build Back Better’s initiatives.”

In figuring out which policies to include, Democrats would have to ponder a number of variables ― like which policies provide the most help to the people most in need, which ones are most likely to be politically sustainable, which ones would be most likely to become law on their own at some later date, and which ones have viable alternatives through executive actions that Biden could take on his own.

And no matter what the decisions, they would be painful for leaders to make ― especially given all the news illustrating the need for these programs, whether it’s natural disasters drawing attention to climate change or a shortage of care workers demonstrating why that part of the labor force needs so much new support.

But the choices at this point may be inevitable in a world where the barest of Democratic majorities depends on support from a senator who has made clear he is wary of too much government spending, who worries openly about assistance recipients using money to buy drugs and who comes from a state that voted for Trump over Biden by nearly 40 points.

And while it’s important to focus on what a reconfigured bill wouldn’t accomplish, it’s also important to think about what it could. A year ago this time, when a governing majority seemed impossible, Democrats and their supporters would have been giddy at the idea of funding even one of Build Back Better’s initiatives. Now they are looking at the possibility of funding several ― an outcome that seems disappointing primarily because, during the early months of Biden’s presidency, there was so much talk of doing so much more.

Of course, even a reconfigured bill might not be able to pass, given the work it would take to craft new legislation and then secure the necessary votes. Getting the current legislation through the House required a herculean effort by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and doing it again might be beyond even her legendary talents, especially with so many Democrats wary of getting burned by Manchin again.

But if the choice Democratic leaders face is between trying to pass a more narrowly focused bill and passing nothing at all, this shouldn’t be a hard call. They have nothing to lose by trying, and quite a lot to gain.

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