Tensions are boiling over as discussions about finishing Democrats’ $1.7 trillion domestic spending bill drag on between President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin.
The legislation looks increasingly likely to stall over the impending holiday break, prompting Biden himself to bemoan the slow pace. And Manchin (D-W.Va.) grew frustrated on Wednesday when questioned about whether he opposes a provision in the bill to extend the expanded child tax credit, deeming those queries “bullshit” and denying that he wants to end the $300 monthly check many families receive for children.
That provision expires this month and Democrats had hoped it would drive a year-end deal. Instead, Biden and Manchin don’t appear particularly close to clinching anything and Manchin has suggested pulling the child tax credit from the bill, according to a source briefed on the conversations. Publicly, Manchin himself said he does not oppose the tax credit.
“The talks between [Biden] and Manchin have been going very poorly. They are far apart,” the source said.
Though Manchin and Biden developed a warm rapport this year and collaborated on several prominent pieces of legislation, the plodding pace of the talks between the two Joes threatens is straining their friendly relationship. Frustration among White House aides with Manchin is high and growing. And while Biden likes Manchin personally, he too has grown tired of the elongated talks and will soon push him to make a decision and support the legislation, according to two White House sources.
Deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates disputed that assertion, writing in an email that “anyone seeking to represent the President like that or speculate about his contacts with members does not know what they’re talking about.”
Neither Biden nor Manchin view the likelihood that this bill won’t pass until 2022 as damaging to either their relationship or fatal to the legislation itself. Manchin’s friends in the Senate also say that he’s not looking to tank Biden’s agenda, even if his opinion on when the package should pass differs from Biden and other Democrats.
“They may have very different views about timing. It’s less about whether, than about when and how much,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is mostly focused on lobbying Manchin to change the Senate rules to pass elections reform.
Biden spent most of the fall trying to win Manchin’s support, including hosting him in Delaware. Manchin has never explicitly said he supports the bill focused on childcare, climate action, pre-K and tax reform, though he has endorsed individual components. He’s also raised fundamental concerns on how the bill is structured, questioning its 10-year financing when lawmakers are authorizing programs on shorter time spans.
“Sen. Manchin is not telling President Biden what to include or not include. He has always been supportive of the” child tax credit, said a source familiar with Manchin’s thinking. “He has also made it clear the cost should not be greater than $1.75 trillion.”
The tax credit is one of the most costly parts of the bill on an annual basis, though the current bill includes only a one-year extension. Over 10 years the credit would cost about $1.4 trillion.
Manchin’s never been the sort of senator to cast a deciding vote against a Democratic president’s signature legislation. But there’s no wiggle room this time; with a 50-50 Senate and no Republicans supporting the bill, Manchin will take down the filibuster-proof legislation unless he gets on board.
That reality and Manchin’s brand of Democratic conservatism has placed him at the center of Biden’s climate and social spending bill, as well as the stalled push to enact elections reform legislation.
“Joe Biden, to his credit, has never given up. He always tries to put himself in the shoes of other people, particularly with whom he’s negotiating. He’s always trying to meet the other person halfway, he’s sincere,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who’s been working to address some of Manchin’s concerns on climate-related provisions. “We tried to narrow what the president has to focus on in his conversations with the senator from West Virginia.”
Biden had a lengthy phone call with Manchin on Monday and again spoke to him on Tuesday. Asked how often he’s talking to Biden, Manchin said on Tuesday: “I’m just waiting. I’m not in charge.”
It’s not just Biden, of course, who is pushing Manchin on a regular basis. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is coordinating with both, speaking to the president and the senator regularly. Individual rank-and-file senators are also frequently talking to Manchin. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) was one of several Democrats who spoke to Manchin on the Senate floor for several minutes on Wednesday, although it did not appear to be a particularly upbeat conversation.
Meanwhile, the West Wing has treated the Manchin relationship with the utmost care — wary of doing anything that could potentially alienate him.
“It’s our longstanding rule not to discuss the specifics of private discussions with lawmakers, but president and Sen. Manchin have had productive and friendly conversations,” Bates said. “The President wants to pass Build Back Better as soon as possible.”
Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s most trusted and affable lieutenants, has taken the lead role in dealing with Manchin, according to a source familiar with the dynamics. The White House said that Manchin has also had calls with other senior aides including National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Lousia Terrell, head of the Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA).
The White House’s regional media team was also told long ago to stay away from West Virginia until after a deal had been struck. Chad Metzler, the White House’s senate legislative affairs liaison, is technically the Manchin lead in the OLA. But anything that touches West Virginia or Manchin will often prompt much of that office to get involved. The White House downplayed that was particular to Manchin and said the 50-50 Senate required the OLA to approach senators as a team.
Asked about the relationship, one White House official said: “This is the ultimate area where I just wanna keep my mouth shut and hope everything works out.”
The impasse has the entire Senate schedule in flux and Democratic senators unsure of what will come next. In interview after interview, Democrats said they didn’t know whether Manchin and Biden were anywhere close to a deal. And that meant Democrats don’t know when their bill to expand the social safety net, known as Build Back Better, will see the president’s desk, either.
“We will pass Build Back Better,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the No. 3 House Democrat. “We’re just not gonna pass it on the time frame that some people would like to see.”
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.
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