Predictions for 2022

Carl P. Leubsdorf

For months, Sen. Joe Manchin’s refusal to sign onto President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill has subjected the West Virginia Democrat to substantial flak from party progressives.

But Manchin is hardly the only one responsible for the impasse that threatens to sink Biden’s top legislative priority. Democratic progressives, the Biden White House and party leaders have been unrealistic on how much spending could pass the narrowly divided Congress. Criticism of Manchin exploded after the West Virginia senator said [Dec. 19] on “Fox News Sunday” that he won’t support the current version of the budget reconciliation measure’s massive package of environmental and social proposals.

“He’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia,” declared Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on CNN’s State of the Union, ignoring the fact that Manchin is more popular there than Biden.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Manchin “has betrayed his commitment not only to the president and Democrats in Congress but, most importantly, to the American people.” And the White House, in an extraordinary statement from Press Secretary Jen Psaki, accused Manchin of “a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position,” noting that just days earlier he handed Biden a written outline “that was the same size and scope as the president’s framework.”

Manchin has been inconsistent publicly on which parts of the bill he favors — and precisely how much spending he’d accept. He maintained [Dec. 19] his ceiling was always $1.5 trillion, some $600 billion less than the House-passed bill.

But leaders of the Democratic Party’s left wing like Sanders and Jayapal — and the White House — can’t escape some responsibility for the impasse. They have endangered BBB’s prospects by unrealistically demanding more spending than can pass a 50/50 Senate where administration legislation needs the votes of the two independently minded Democratic moderates, Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema.

In a sense, Sanders exemplifies the problem. Elevated through seniority to chair the Senate Budget Committee, the twice-defeated presidential candidate initially proposed a $6 trillion budget, encouraged by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (possibly fearing a primary challenge from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

Later, Sanders suggested a $3.5 trillion “compromise” — still far too large. Sanders also proposed expanding Medicare to include vision, dental and hearing coverage, an expensive plan primarily benefiting middle- and upper-income recipients. Top House Democrats preferred to expand Obamacare subsidies and extend Medicaid coverage to the poor in states like Texas and Florda.

In retrospect, it’s evident Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi stuck too long with Sanders’s $3.5 trillion total, though possibly because they feared House progressives would torpedo a smaller package.

Now, progressives like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are demanding an immediate Senate vote, presumably to embarrass Manchin. Schumer says the Senate will vote early next year on “a revised version” of the House bill.

If the goal is to pass BBB, those revisions better meet some of Manchin’s demands. After all, this remains the best chance for Democrats to enact popular portions of their social agenda, like universal pre-kindergarten, added day care support, Medicaid expansion, expanded Obamacare subsidies and a range of environmental measures.

Manchin, who says he is open to further talks, signaled an alternate approach by noting how much BBB’s potential long-term cost exceeds its current price tag. He criticized progressives for starting multiple new programs for a few years on the assumption their popularity would force Congress to extend them.

Manchin favors fewer programs, fully funded for the bill’s full 10-year extent; The Washington Post says they include universal pre-kindergarten, Obamacare subsidies and environmental measures.

Washington Rep. Suzanne DelBene, chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, favors a similar narrower approach. That would force Democratic leaders to make previously avoided choices and eliminate some costlier proposals.

One could be extending the child tax credit passed earlier this year, which many Democrats favor. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says full funding would cost $1.6 trillion over the decade.

Preschool and child care provisions would cost $752 billion, it says. That wouldn’t leave room to expand Obamacare subsidies and Medicaid, include environmental provisions or add paid family and medical leave.

Biden’s election and the capture of those two Georgia Senate seats last January encouraged many Democrats to believe he could rival Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson in enacting far-reaching social programs. Congress has already passed two significant measures, Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill to ease the pandemic’s economic impact and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan measure to meet long-ignored infrastructure needs. But the costlier reconciliation bill always faced problems, given the slim Democratic majorities. The House finally passed it last month, after multiple delays caused by Democratic in-fighting.

But it stalled in the Senate because of Manchin’s objections and opposition to tax and immigration provisions the House added to get the necessary votes. Cutbacks were always inevitable to pass the Senate, though too many could anger progressives enough to threaten final enactment by the House.

[Last] week’s acrimony increases the uncertainty over whether the Democrats can take advantage of their current control of Congress and the White House to enact this key part of their agenda.

Progressives need to recognize that even a reduced bill would provide a platform of achievement for Democrats to run on in the midterm elections.

More importantly, any bill would improve the lives of millions of Americans more than no bill.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may send emails to Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2021 The Dallas Morning News.

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