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Littwin: If you’ve always assumed Manchin would come around on Biden’s safety-net bill, it may be time to think again

Logic dictated a compromise by now. So did this: If a bill is not passed by Dec. 28, millions of families probably won’t get their child-tax-credit checks in January.

I have long assumed that whatever demands Joe Manchin continues to make to win his approval for Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion safety-net/climate-change bill, Manchin would eventually — if at some great cost to the safety-net/climate-change package itself — get to yes.

I assumed it because that’s how politics works. I assumed it because the $1.9 trillion — which is a lot of dollars — would be spread over 10 years. I assumed it because Biden and Manchin are negotiating face to face. And I assumed it because it’s logical, which, looking at matters now, may have been the major flaw in my thinking. 

Mike Littwin

In general, one gets only so many bites of the apple. Manchin was pivotal in basically halving the original size of the bill, forcing House progressives and the Bernie Sanders wing of the U.S. Senate to swallow a couple of trillion dollars’ worth of pride. It was a mighty display of the power of a single Senate vote, in a time when Democrats need all 50 on board to pass the bill through reconciliation.

As for the second bite, that was completely expected. Manchin, the coal baron, was the driving force — as a senator from the coal-producing state of West Virginia — in excising a huge chunk of the bill that would address climate change at the expense of coal and oil.

That’s two enormous bites. Any more, and you begin to look greedy. Is it really possible Manchin could string these negotiations along for months and months and still refuse to find a compromise? I wouldn’t have believed it, but now, I’m not so sure. 

I thought I understood the stakes. Manchin is a Democrat in a 40-point red state. It’s only natural that he would protect his state’s (and his own) perceived interests, even though the bill, in most aspects, would actually benefit a poor state like West Virginia. But Manchin’s objections are natural only up to a point. After a while they begin to look, politically speaking, more than a little deviant.

Failure to pass the bill in the Senate, where it is expected to get exactly no Republican votes, would be a disaster for whatever remote chances Democrats still possess of holding onto slim majorities in the House and/or the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

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Failure to pass the bill, which polling shows to be largely popular, especially once it is broken down into its recognizable parts, would feed directly into the Dems-in-disarray meme, even if only one Democratic senator — not sure where Kyrsten Sinema is at this point — is disarrayed. You’ve seen the impact of Biden’s inability to get this package done on his faltering approval ratings.

Failure to pass the bill by Dec. 28 would mean that millions of families with children are unlikely to get their monthly checks in January because the expanded child tax credit, as now written, expires at the end of the year.

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The old tax credit was for $2,000 per child, but you qualified for the entire amount only if you made enough money to reduce your taxes by, yes, $2,000. In other words, many poor people were left with little to no refund. The present bill would provide $3,600 annually for children 5 and under and $3,000 annually for children 6 to 17. There would be no minimum earnings cap, only a maximum one. In other words, it helps the people who most need the help. And the check comes monthly, which is critical for any family living paycheck to paycheck.

Congress has already passed it once in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. But the expanded credit was passed for only one year, and it is about to sunset. The last checks are going out now, which is one reason — among a few trillion others — that Biden is trying to get the bill passed before Christmas. If Manchin’s holdout becomes permanent, the expanded tax credit moves from temporary status to, uh, expired.

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Manchin’s argument for further reducing the size of the bill now includes its possible effect on inflation, which you could credit, I guess — although many analysts do not — if Manchin hadn’t been making the same arguments before inflation started to look like a problem. And then there’s, of course, the issue of the deficit, which is an issue for Republicans only in years when there are Democratic presidents. You could look it up.

The Congressional Budget Office has said the bill is basically paid for. It reached that point only after Democrats applied a few gimmicks, including the not-so-gimmicky move of sunsetting the child credit bill after a year. Manchin says he wants the bill to be counted and funded as a 10-year-bill because Democrats, in fact, want the credit to be permanent and will eventually try to make it so. But the credit, which was originally set for five years, was reduced for no other reason than to get the bill to a price that Manchin would approve.

That’s right. So, at this point, Manchin won’t approve the bill with the full funding of the child tax credit or without the full funding of the child tax credit. As Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said in a Tuesday news conference on the child tax credit, Manchin is not a “fan” of the concept. But I’m guessing that some of the hundreds of thousands of West Virginians getting what amounts to a huge middle-class tax cut just might be. 

The reason Democrats were willing to risk a mere one-year extension of what is a very popular plan is that otherwise, in Manchin’s world, they’d have to cut out major programs like, say, universal pre-K and much-expanded child care benefits. That’s not cutting to the bone. That’s cutting through it. The child tax credit is estimated to reduce child poverty by a whopping 40%. How do you not support that? If it were up to me — sadly, it’s not — you’d have a program that would reduce child poverty by, I don’t know, 70%. Maybe 90%.

According to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, food insecurity among families with children fell by 29% when the payments began in July. And if the payments stop, an estimated 9.9 million kids would slip back under the poverty line.

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Nearly every study shows that children raised in poverty are at far greater risk of remaining poor as adults. And still, Manchin wants the bill to be slowed down, moving it into an election year when, if history is a guide, everything gets that much more difficult to pass. And Senate Democrats are still arguing about what changes they’d make to tax law to increase tax revenue. I’ve heard there’s something like a trillion dollars a year from Trump’s tax cuts to the wealthy to play around with. 

The one thing I was sure I wouldn’t hear at the news conference — which Bennet headed along with Senate colleagues Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker as well as a longtime supporter of these credits, Rep. Rosa DeLauro — was anything critical of Manchin. Because they can’t afford to criticize Manchin. They have to believe that Manchin will eventually come around. Not because it’s logical, although it is, but because somehow getting Manchin on board is the only shot they’ve got.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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