Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) wants President Joe Biden to spend more time trying to reach a bipartisan infrastructure deal with Senate Republicans even as negotiations teeter on the brink of collapse and progressives are urging the White House to pull the plug.
Manchin’s views are critical in an evenly divided 50-50 Senate. Democrats cannot move forward unilaterally to pass an infrastructure bill under a special budget process called reconciliation without every member of their caucus on board. So, for the moment, top Democrats are frozen and at the whim of centrists like Manchin who want to give bipartisan negotiations more time to play out.
“I don’t know why you need reconciliation,” the West Virginia Democrat told reporters on Tuesday, expressing confidence that a bipartisan deal was within reach.
He also seemed to acknowledge the leverage he holds over the process, daring Democrats to proceed without his support.
“If you think you got it, then go for it,” he said, referring to the budget process that would allow Democrats to circumvent a GOP filibuster.
Senate Republicans are preparing to make a counteroffer to Biden on infrastructure spending, nearing $1 trillion this week, giving new air to talks that seemed on the verge of collapse last week. But that would still fall far short of the White House’s revised ask of $1.7 trillion for the infrastructure and jobs package. And the GOP proposal includes just a fraction of new direct infrastructure spending; much of it includes funds Congress already appropriated for other purposes.
The two sides aren’t just far apart on the total cost. They also have broad disagreements over what counts as infrastructure and how to pay for it. Democrats, for example, would like to include investments in “social” infrastructure, such as child care and elder care. They also want to raise taxes on corporations to pay for the bill. Republicans are fiercely opposed to both.
“We are now very far apart,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of eight senators is working on a separate compromise infrastructure proposal in case talks between Senate Republicans and the White House fall apart. The fact that another batch of negotiators, including Manchin and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), has popped up doesn’t come as a great sign for existing talks involving the Biden administration. The congressional gang is working on an even more narrow proposal whose cost is to be offset with user fees and unspent coronavirus funds Congress previously approved.
“I want to make sure that we don’t interfere with the process going on between the White House,” Romney said Tuesday. “So they’re on the front burner, we’re kind of a back burner backup.”
The flurry of fresh legislative activity on infrastructure hasn’t encouraged some Democratic senators, however. Democrats are broadly wary of GOP willingness to negotiate in good faith, remembering how Republicans slow-walked talks with President Barack Obama’s administration over passing the Affordable Care Act, withholding support to the very end.
“I think we’re reaching the point of fish or cut bait,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said when asked how long Democrats should continue to negotiate before turning to reconciliation.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) agreed.
“The clock is running,” Warren said. “We’ve got to get this done. The need will not go away. There are millions of women at home today saying, ‘I’m out of the workforce because I can’t afford child care.’”
Democrats want the infrastructure and jobs package to put hundreds of billions of dollars into programs such as child care, paid family leave and education ― all areas they argue are pertinent to being able to get people back to work. They’re also pushing for a large federal investment to spur the production of electric vehicles. Republicans argue Congress should solely focus on traditional infrastructure needs, such as roads, bridges and airports.
Manchin seems to agree more with the Republican argument, throwing Democratic plans for quick passage of a bold infrastructure overhaul into uncertainty.
“I’m always looking for that moderate, reasonable middle if you can,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday. “It might not be as big as they want, and then you have people on the right that don’t want to do that much or do nothing at all. I probably wouldn’t be there either.”