Joe Manchin’s pointed refusal Monday to endorse President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending bill framework left Democrats insisting that the mercurial Democratic senator would come around.
In a blunt press conference, Manchin said he would not bow to party pressure to support the more progressive social spending bill and decried the “shell games, budget gimmicks” used in writing it. And the West Virginia Democrat criticized House Democrats’ delay of a bipartisan infrastructure bill he helped write, declaring it “time to vote.”
Since Manchin is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s proverbial 50th vote, his comments rippled through the Senate Democratic Caucus and left some senators like Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) concerned about Manchin’s level of commitment. She contended that Biden “obviously has work to do” with Manchin. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said “quite a few of us are going to continue to press our friend and colleague.”
It was clear that Democrats had heard some version of Manchin’s calls for delay and pointed scrutiny before. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said “it didn’t seem like anything he couldn’t have sent in an email.” And some Democrats argued that although Manchin can be hard to predict, that he is not the type of politician to screw Biden over.
“Manchin is not going to be the guy who pulls the foundation out of the Biden first-year track record,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “I don’t think he’ll surprise me on this.”
Perhaps most perilously for the House progressives whom he criticized for holding up the $550 billion infrastructure bill, Manchin made clear that despite his warm statements about the White House’s framework, he can’t be viewed as an automatic yes just because he’s a Democrat.
It’s a major gut check for Biden and his party’s fragile majorities, which require lockstep unity in the 50-50 Senate and near-total support in the House. Democrats need Manchin’s vote to pass the rest of Biden’s climate and social spending agenda, but Manchin’s only real demand on Monday was that the House immediately pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
When it came to the $1 trillion-plus spending bill, Manchin’s words were far less ironclad.
“I’m open to supporting a final bill that helps move our country forward. But I’m equally open to voting against a bill that hurts our country,” Manchin said, citing inflation and budget deficits as his main concerns. Democrats have linked their infrastructure and social spending bills as part of a strategic attempt to unite their disparate wings to advance major legislative goals this year.
As of Monday morning, many House Democrats projected they could vote this week on infrastructure and the social policy measure, passed using budget reconciliation rules that allow it to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. That timeline could slip past this week after Manchin’s press conference, which also appeared to embolden House moderates.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats in a closed door meeting Monday night that the House Rules panel could meet to tee up the $1.75 trillion bill as soon as late Tuesday, with floor votes later this week, according to people listening. Asked when Democrats could release final text of the bill, House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer quipped: “I wish I knew.”
Some Senate Democrats conceded that Manchin had only complicated things even as he tried to offer clarity.
“At this moment in time trust is a hard thing. And we don’t want to give people excuses to vote against the [infrastructure bill] or against reconciliation,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Progressives in the House scrambled in the wake of Manchin’s unexpected criticism of the social spending bill after months of behind-the-scenes talks intended to win him over. Many of those liberals were prepared to vote yes on both of Biden’s bills this week, in large part because they believed the White House had secured both senators’ votes on the roughly $1.75 trillion package.
While some members, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), mostly seemed resolved to ignore Manchin for the moment, others feared his comments could upend plans to finally vote on both the social spending and infrastructure bills this week. Pelosi informed some members over the weekend she aimed to bring both to the floor, though other senior Democrats were more skeptical of such a quick timeline given the unresolved issues.
In a uniquely fast statement released after Manchin spoke, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden aides “remain confident that the plan will gain Senator Manchin’s support.”
The infrastructure bill has twice now stalled out in the House, infuriating moderate senators who wrote it. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were both top negotiators on that legislation, leading House progressives to balk at passing it without ironclad commitments on the climate and social spending bill.
The party-line reconciliation package is paid for with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, but Manchin questioned whether that math would really add up. The bill, which is still being reworked to add prescription drug reform, has not received a score from the Congressional Budget Office.
That questioning, despite Manchin’s support for an infrastructure bill that the CBO says will add to the deficit, infuriated some progressives.
“If there’s anybody in the Democratic Caucus or elsewhere who is worried about fiscal responsibility and the deficit … [the infrastructure bill] is not paid for,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The reconciliation bill “is paid for in its entirety. It will not have an impact on inflation.”
Manchin has raised doubts about adding paid leave and expanding Medicare to the social spending bill, comments that led to paid leave’s omission from last week’s framework and a Medicare expansion getting limited to hearing aides, rather than hearing and dental coverage. As it’s currently written, the bill expands early education, spends hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change and extends Democrats’ boosted child tax credit a year.
Jayapal, who leads the nearly 100-member House progressive group, said on CNN that House Democrats are still prepared to vote on both bills in the coming days. A day earlier, Jayapal and her whip team had begun their own internal count on how many progressives were willing to back both Biden priorities this week. Many liberals had privately indicated they were ready to support both during a Sunday call. The progressive caucus will huddle again Tuesday.
And it’s not just Manchin who has issues. In the House, a small group of moderate Democrats are privately warning they aren’t ready to back Biden’s broader bill on the floor this week.
Between four and eight centrists have raised concerns to leadership about either process or policy on the $1.75 trillion bill, according to one source close to the talks. Their issues range from fierce opposition to immigration reform to a proposed methane emissions fee to a demand that the bill is fully scored by independent budget analysts and that it can clear the Senate’s byzantine budget rules.
Immigration is by far the most volatile issue in the House, where Pelosi can only afford to lose three Democrats on the final vote. At least three Latino Democrats have threatened to oppose any social spending bill that doesn’t include immigration policy.
But a much larger group of moderates — including many of the caucus’s most vulnerable members — have said they would tank the bill if contentious immigration provisions are included.
In addition, few Democrats want to support a bill without prescription drug reform. Democrats in the House and Senate are nearing an agreement on adding compromise language to the social spending bill that would empower Medicare to negotiate some prices down.
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