After months of haggling and negotiating over President Joe Biden’s key domestic policy plan, the Build Back Better Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) appeared to pull the plug Sunday morning during an appearance on Fox News.
“If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” he told host Bret Baier on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is a no.”
Not long after his appearance, Manchin’s office released a lengthy statement confirming that he “cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation,” citing inflation, the new COVID-19 variant, the national debt and “geopolitical uncertainty.”
The White House responded with a sharp statement early Sunday afternoon from press secretary Jen Psaki, who said Manchin’s comments were “at odds” with what he has said to administration officials and that the White House believed Manchin had been working in “good faith” to reach an agreement.
“If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort, 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,” Psaki said. “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.”
With only 50 senators among Democrats and those caucusing with Democrats, plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, the Build Back Better Act cannot clear the chamber without Manchin’s support. No Republicans support the legislation.
At this stage in the negotiations, all sides appeared to have agreed on a $1.75 trillion price tag to fund investments in fighting climate change and social spending. House Democrats voted to pass a smaller infrastructure bill in early November based on promises from Biden he could secure Senate support for the larger social spending bill.
Progressive reaction was swift and furious. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a strong proponent of the bill — who initially pushed a $6 trillion package — lambasted Manchin on CNN moments later and demanded that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) bring the package to the floor anyway.
“I hope that we will bring a strong bill to the floor of the Senate as soon as we can, and let Mr. Manchin explain to the people of West Virginia why he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to powerful special interests,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was more direct. “Manchin’s excuse is bullshit,” she tweeted. “The people of West Virginia would directly benefit from childcare, pre-Medicare expansion, and long term care, just like Minnesotans.”
The apparent death of the legislation is a body blow to President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party — it contained many key promises they campaigned on during the 2020 election that will now likely go undelivered.
And Manchin’s move may deepen the rift between congressional progressives and the White House. When the House reluctantly passed the smaller infrastructure package in November, both Biden and Harris cajoled the Congressional Progressive Caucus with promises they could get Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on board for this legislation.
In Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) telling in a recent tweet, “Biden *himself* came to House Progressives & told us was putting his credibility on the line to deliver BBB if CPC voted BIF.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) seemed to take aim at Biden and House Democratic leadership Sunday morning on MSNBC for separating the smaller infrastructure package from Build Back Better. Bush and several other members of “The Squad,” a group of progressive lawmakers, voted against the infrastructure package for that reason.
“There are six of us that have been saying this all along: Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. [Ayanna] Pressley, Rep. [Rashida] Tlaib, Rep. [Jamaal] Bowman, Rep. Omar and myself. We have been saying this, for weeks, that this would happen,” she said. “Having those coupled together was the only leverage we had. And what did the caucus do? We tossed it.”
Earlier this week, Harris had a contentious interview with media host Charlamagne Tha God on Comedy Central, during which he asked Harris, “Who’s the real president of this country. Is it Joe Manchin or Joe Biden?” An aide tried to end the interview before Harris scrambled an impassioned defense of the administration’s agenda.
But Manchin’s knifing of Build Back Better on Sunday does mean that scores of key Biden policies won’t become reality.
The wide-ranging bill would have bolstered the American safety net in several key areas, including child care, drug pricing, health coverage and paid family leave.
The legislative framework outlined a monthly child allowance, which would have continued the payments that began this year, using an expanded child tax credit. It also included child care subsidies, available starting next year, that would have been available to families with incomes as high as their state’s median income. And there was a program where states could take advantage of federal funds to offer free universal pre-kindergarten.
It also would have improved the health care system by bolstering the Affordable Care Act. Build Back Better extended subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges through 2025 and closed the “Medicaid gap” in a dozen red states that did not expand the program under the ACA.
Medicare Part B also would have started covering hearing services, while Medicare Part D would have capped expenses at $2,000 per senior starting in 2024. Insurers would have been prohibited from making anyone pay more than $35 out of pocket for insulin. And drug manufacturers would have been penalized for raising prices on single-source drugs beyond the average inflation rate. The Department of Health and Human Services would have been instructed to start negotiating prices on 10 key medications.
The House version of Build Back Better included four weeks of paid family leave for all workers in the private sector starting in 2024, though Manchin had already made clear he opposed that piece of the legislation.
The apparent death of Build Back Better might close the window on the U.S. taking meaningful action on climate change during Biden’s presidency. If there is any path forward on remnants of the Build Back Better framework, it likely won’t include substantial provisions on fighting climate change. In his statement, Manchin repeated a claim he made earlier this year, citing supposed damage the legislation would do to “the reliability of our electric grid” and that “the energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America.”
Though it fell far short of what scientists and economists across the ideological spectrum said was needed to decarbonize the U.S. economy, the legislation would have been the largest single investment in slashing climate-changing pollution in world history.
The bill earmarked about $320 billion in tax credits for companies that buy or build solar, wind, and nuclear power, and for drivers who buy electric vehicles, particularly models made in unionized American factories. The program would have lasted 10 years, twice as long as previous clean-energy tax incentives. About $105 billion would have gone toward fortifying the country against extreme weather, cleaning up disease-causing chemicals in historically polluted communities, and setting up a Civilian Climate Corps modeled on the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted billions of trees and provided jobs during the Great Depression.
Another $20 billion would have gone toward a direct federal budget for green spending within the government, including in costly and nascent technologies like next-generation nuclear reactors. That, plus additional spending to help farmers adapt to more extreme weather and store more carbon in their soil, would have brought the total climate spending to about $555 billion.
The bill was widely seen as the last opportunity for the U.S. to enshrine a plan to cut emissions before likely losing control of Congress to Republicans. While there are notable exceptions within its ranks, the GOP has long been the only major political party in the developed world to deny the reality of climate change as a platform issue, and whose open fealty to the fossil fuel industry has made its leaders a willing bulwark against any policies to cut pollution.
And that party is now favored to win one or both chambers of Congress in next year’s midterm elections. Critics of decarbonizing the U.S. economy, including Manchin, have long pointed to the fact that emissions from China and India will likely determine whether the world warms 1.5 degrees Celsius ― or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit ― beyond pre-industrial averages. (It has already heated up by about 1.1 degrees Celsius).
China’s emissions eclipsed the U.S. in 2006, but Americans by far have the highest per-capita emissions, thanks to a reliance on dirty power plants and gas-guzzling vehicles. Carbon also stays in the atmosphere trapping the sun’s heat for centuries, and the U.S. has contributed far more CO2 to the cumulative mess than China or India. That made well-funded, ambitious efforts like those the bill included key to providing the U.S. leverage to urge other countries to change course.