In the biggest congressional news of late and very possibly the most important since Joe Biden took office, Sen. Joe Manchin has changed his position — yes, one more time — on Biden’s much-reduced, yet-still-all-important climate-change package.

Mike Littwin

In a city where secrets are rarely held for long, Manchin’s announcement of yet another change of heart — this one, just weeks after basically saying the bill he had supported after many compromises, almost of all of them in his favor, was now basically dead because of inflation — shocked nearly everyone if you don’t include rookie Sen. John Hickenlooper. 

Hick’s first two years in office have been, well, quiet in much the way freshmen senators not named, say, Ted Cruz, are typically more often seen than heard. But Hick has been getting credit for not giving up on the bill when most Senate Democrats had simply given up on Manchin, who seemed to love the attention he was getting more than the bill that couldn’t be passed without him. Manchin saw it a little differently. He said he was “ostracized” and “victimized.” Poor Joe.

Many Democrats — notably Bernie Sanders — had blasted Manchin for blocking much of Biden’s agenda. Senate Dems were tired of walking on eggshells only to have Manchin stomp on them one by one. The back and forth — the constantly moving goalposts — had used up most of Manchin’s credit among Democrats and particularly among Democratic activists.

“There was no alternative” but to keep talking, Hick said in a news conference Friday. But there was — it was surrender. Until the day Hick’s staff got the Wharton School — Penn’s famed business school — to study the present bill and come back with the prediction that it would actually reduce inflation and not increase it, nothing seemed to move Manchin. Or maybe it was something else that moved Manchin. In any case, Hick is getting a lot of credit for help in the compromise. And suddenly, privately, Manchin said to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he was ready to talk again. It could have been Wharton. It could have been that he was just tired of being the bad guy.

“It’s the most important thing that I’ve ever been close to,” Hick said of the last-ditch deal. We’ll get back to Hick and his role in all this in a minute.

The thing is, no one should be declaring victory just yet. The biggest remaining questions may be whether Manchin — aka Hamlet on the Potomac — can keep his word long enough this time, needing only to hold out until the end of August, to get the bill through the Senate. That is, unless someone else (see: Sinema, Kyrsten) decides to jump into the center ring to take Manchin’s place as Biden nemesis and Democratic provocateur. 

You see, the reconciliation bill would need a unanimous Democratic vote, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote.

We’re still a long way from passing the bill. Sinema has not said what she will do. Will she go along with the corporate tax increases that she has, to this point, refused? And then there’s the growing exposure of moderate House members, who could defy Nancy Pelosi, although I would bet on Pelosi in that matchup.

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Once upon a time the awkwardly named Build Back Better bill was to be Biden’s signature achievement — a multitrillion-dollar program covering everything from child care to immigration reform to a major adjustment of the Trump tax cuts to the reduction of the Medicaid treatment gap to lots of other stuff that added up to $3 trillion over 10 years. This was when Biden still had dreams of being the next FDR. These days, many Democrats are dreaming of Biden deciding not to run for re-election.

The bill — now renamed the easier to understand, and to sell, Inflation Reduction Act — still has a lot of important elements that actually equate to something like progress. It is, we’re told, the nation’s biggest climate bill ever. While it didn’t get rid of the awful Trump tax cuts, it does raise taxes significantly on corporations. 

There’s more. Major changes to the Affordable Care Act. A climate bill, one that, if enacted, would — some experts say — reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline. Biden had promised 50%, but at least he may have gotten close. Incentives for the purchase of electric cars. Incentives for building out more solar, wind and battery energy. The largest tax hike on corporations in decades. Allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with Big Pharma, reducing prices on a few drugs to start and then more in the future.

If it’s not a great bill, it is a good one and one that Dems would love to run on in the November midterms. It’s not a world-changing bill, especially considering what Biden and the Dems had in mind. Since the Dems need all 50 votes to get a bill passed through reconciliation, all it took was Manchin, the West Virginia coal baron, to object to large parts of the climate plan or for Sinema, for reasons unknown, to refuse major cuts in the Trump tax giveaway to the wealthy, to ruin Biden’s day and maybe his first and possibly only term.

But conservation groups are basically beside themselves. Most had given up hope. Activists on drug costs had basically given up hope on allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Now they’re beside themselves, too.

There were a lot of senators other than Hickenlooper still working on Manchin to try to get him to come around. Manchin said he had wanted to wait until September to see if there was any change on the inflation front. But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Manchin it had to be now, before the August recess.

And this wasn’t the only bill that Manchin had overruled. Manchin had objected to the bill Michael Bennet and others had backed and gotten passed with a one-year sunset — an expanded child tax credit that briefly reduced child poverty by 40% — because Manchin thought there should be a work provision in the bill. Might as well be back to the Ronald Reagan era of welfare queens.

The story of how Manchin and Hickenlooper became friends tells much of this story. A few months ago, when I was writing about the mercurial Manchin and Hickenlooper was defending him, we talked about how Manchin was the one senator who invited him to dinner — on his yacht, of course — before Hick was sworn in, and how they hit it off. Presumably, Manchin saw Hickenlooper as a fellow centrist. And if Manchin was to help keep the coal industry alive in West Virginia, he probably thought Hickenlooper, the former geologist and one-time drinker of fracking fluid, could be of use.

But when Manchin recently told reporters, “I’m done,” it looked as if he meant it this time. Still, Hick said that in all the time that he had talked to Manchin and his staff had talked to Manchin’s staff, Manchin would always say the door wasn’t completely closed. And eventually Manchin went to Schumer with a bid to reopen negotiations.

So now there’s a compromise. At last. Which could mean — and I’ve tried my hardest to do the math on this — everything. Or — because we know Dems are not above sabotaging themselves — it could mean nothing.

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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