Let me confess straight away that I have no idea why Joe Manchin decided after months of negotiations to announce — and on Fox News yet — that he was single-handedly blowing up the centerpiece of Joe Biden’s first-year agenda. Negotiations were still ongoing, and while Manchin’s objections were well known, the very public breakup caught Biden very much by surprise.
The quick political analysis is that Biden — the one-time lion of the Senate — misjudged and, inevitably, mishandled the situation, believing that he could persuade Manchin in the end to vote for his social-spending programs. You could see that failure in every word of the surprisingly tough White House statement from spokesperson Jen Psaki on Manchin’s decision to walk away. She basically said Manchin had reneged on his promise to Biden.
All I know for sure is that if Manchin doesn’t come around — and, despite everything, I guess he still might — it would be a disaster for Democrats, who are looking to run on this program in 2022 as evidence that, even with a 50-50 Senate, they could still deliver the goods, LBJ-style. One difference, of course, is that Lyndon Johnson had a supermajority in both houses of Congress to fall back on. A mid-‘60s version of Manchin would just be one unnoticed senator shouting into the wind.
The easy — far too easy — political explanation for the impasse is that Manchin, a Democratic senator in a state that went for Donald Trump by 39 points in 2020, was simply protecting his own political future by sabotaging the catch-all, $1.9 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) plan.
And yet, not to be ageist about this — I’m just a few years younger than Manchin myself — but Manchin is not up for re-election until 2024, at which point he’ll be 77 years old. Exactly how much political future does he have to protect?
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Another theory is that Manchin’s feelings were hurt because when Biden announced there would be no bill by Christmas, he named Manchin as part of the problem. If you want to believe in dysfunctional Washington — and who doesn’t? — that theory is pretty much perfect.
And by announcing it on Fox, the conventional wisdom is that the thin-skinned Manchin was showing West Virginians that, for good measure, he was unafraid to poke his own party directly in its collective eye. That’s just one more reason, though, why Manchin is being slammed by his Dem colleagues, who had, to that point, been very careful to do or say nothing to offend him. They desperately needed Manchin’s vote to pass BBB and they still need him just as much to change his mind on carving out a filibuster exemption for much-needed voting rights bills. Manchin apparently believes saving the filibuster trumps saving democracy.
To give you an idea of where things stand, I was talking to John Hickenlooper last week about this first year in the Senate — he’s surprised that he loves the job — when he volunteered that he’s friends with Manchin and believed that he’d come around to a compromise on BBB and maybe on filibuster reform, too, which Hick now supports. That was one day before Manchin’s “I’m-done” announcement. I tried to get back to Hickenlooper — the perennial glass-half-full politician — for a Manchin update. So far, I’ve heard nothing.
Maybe the strangest part of Manchin’s decision is that when he drew his line in the sand as to which parts of Biden’s social-spending bill he’d support, he left off the Michael Bennet-backed expanded-child-tax credit provision, which, according to the studies that Bennet likes to cite, would lift something like 40% — maybe more — of disadvantaged children out of poverty.
For most Dem politicians, saying you want to lift kids out of poverty is about as controversial as kissing babies used to be in the pre-pandemic days.
And when LBJ launched his War on Poverty way back in 1964 — a battle we’re still losing, by the way — where do you think he made his announcement? That’s right, in West Virginia, then and now one of the poorest states in the union. Manchin said he couldn’t sell the bill to his constituents, even though the child-tax-credit presents a massive tax cut for middle- and lower-earning people.
There hasn’t been much polling in West Virginia, but I have found over the years that people tend to favor a law that would send between $250 and $300 a month to more than 90% of families with children. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget Policy, ending the program, now also on a one-year deal, would push 50,000 West Virginia children back into poverty.
Manchin’s objection, he said, was that the new child credit expansion was also only for one year even though Democrats admit they want the fully-refundable credit to be made permanent. Leaving it at one year is an accounting trick, of course, but one necessary in order to get the bill to a size that Manchin had demanded. Manchin had been saying that he was worried the bill would make inflation even worse, but Goldman Sachs reported that, without BBB, the economic growth would weaken.
In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter why Manchin is opposing the bill, or why Manchin walked away when he and Biden were still very much in negotiation.
What matters is what to do about it.
House progressives, who agreed to cut BBB basically in half in order to please Manchin, are now saying they won’t vote for a further-pared-down bill. According to the Washington Post, Manchin had offered a $1.8 trillion compromise to Biden, which would, among other things, pay for 10 years of pre-K education, expand Medicare and free up $600 billion or so for climate change legislation.
If you’ll remember, House progressives had tied BBB to the bipartisan infrastructure bill, saying they wouldn’t pass one without the other. They eventually caved and passed the infrastructure bill, taking Biden at his word that it would all work out.
So this leaves Biden in, at minimum, a bind.
There was a story — quite a damning story — in The Huffington Post that Manchin had been telling colleagues that low-income Americans would just blow the money from the monthly child credit expansion on, you know, drugs and that they’d use paid sick leave to go, uh, hunting. Those who have studied the child-credit expansion, which began on another one-year deal last May, say people are spending the money on frivolous items like food and rent. If Manchin did, in fact, say that, we’d be back in Reagan welfare-queen territory or worse. Washington Post columnist Jen Rubin called it Manchin’s let-them-eat-cake moment.
Despite insisting that the child tax credit be excised from the bill, Manchin says he very much supports the tax credit. When asked if the reports about parents spending on drugs were true, Manchin said to the inquiring reporter, “This is bullshit. You’re bullshit.” Of course, during the negotiations, Manchin had wanted to put a work requirement for those accepting the tax credit, so there’s that.
Maybe the best Biden, with his disastrous approval ratings, can do now is to work with Manchin’s counter offer — as a starting point anyway — and hope that the expanded child tax credit could pass as a stand-alone bill. Mitt Romney had proposed a similar bill that is, in some ways, more generous than the one Bennet had proposed, although Romney would pay for it by cutting other programs rather than taxing the rich.
Or maybe that’s just one more delusional and desperate idea. But, whatever it is, it is clearly now on Biden, who may have over-promised on what he could possibly accomplish with a 50-50 Senate, to somehow build his bill back better.
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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