White House to Manchin: It's war

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

It’s a good thing that Joe Biden doesn’t need Joe Manchin to pass anything else in this session of Congress, eh? At least that’s the impression the White House left in its blistering response to the West Virginia senator’s decision to torpedo Biden’s Build Back Better bill. The decision — announced on Fox News, no less — puts an effective end to Biden’s insipid and math-deficient attempts to style himself into another FDR or LBJ.

The White House might have some good reasons to be angry over Manchin’s decision, but instead of mitigating the issue, they poured gasoline on the fire:

In announcing his opposition, Manchin raised the same concerns about the bill that he’s had all along: inflation, rising debt and a mismatch between the package’s 10-year funding and its shorter-term programs. But until Sunday, Manchin had never taken a hard line on the legislation. In the past week, he’s spoken directly to Biden several times, with the president and other Democrats furiously lobbying him to support the bill. …

Manchin’s rollout on Fox News infuriated Democrats Sunday morning. Psaki said that the senator had brought Biden an outline of a bill similar in size and scope that “could lead to a compromise acceptable to all.”

“If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate,” Psaki said. “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.”

And while the centrist senator’s staff informed White House and Democratic aides about his forthcoming blow to Biden’s agenda, some Democrats were steamed that Manchin himself hadn’t called Biden or Schumer.

Read the whole statement to get the full bitterness from Psaki. Through his team, Biden accuses Manchin of double-dealing and dishonesty, which is pretty rich given the machinations around the BBB. Manchin said from the start that he wouldn’t go higher than a $1.5 trillion price tag over ten years — in honest accounting. Manchin eventually went up to $1.75T (the White House says $1.8T), but repeatedly and consistently said that budget gimmicks like sunsets wouldn’t fly with him.

The BBB process suffered from dishonesty and lies, but those didn’t come from Manchin. In the end, neither Biden nor progressive leaders ever budged off of their vast social-engineering ambitions, the real 10-year cost of which was $4.5 trillion. Instead of negotiating in good faith with Manchin, they tried jollying him along and figured he’d eventually cave.

In other words, they’re idiots. And this response tends to corroborate that point, as even some Democrats began to whisper in the aftermath yesterday:

Essentially, Psaki is calling Manchin a liar. Picking up the pieces from here won’t be easy. In fact, one senior Democratic aide texted us minutes after the White House press release came out with this assessment: “Whoever at the White House who thinks it’s a good idea to go scorched earth needs to be fired… He’s the president. He’s supposed to be the adult.”

So much for making government work! Politico’s Burgess Everett and Jonathan Lemire point out that Biden’s flops on Capitol Hill seriously undercut both of his major election claims last year. First, Biden’s clearly not competent enough to figure out how to negotiate legislation even within his own caucus, let alone across the aisle. Don’t forget that Biden didn’t need a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress for the BBB and still couldn’t deliver.

Second, remember when Biden claimed he could restore cooperation and civility in Washington? How chaos would be beaten back thanks to his decades of experience and his moderate approach to policy? This pouty denouement to the entirely predictable disaster of BBB puts an end to those myths. Biden never was anything more than an empty suit on Capitol Hill with good PR. Now that he’s in charge, all the PR in the world can’t cover up that truth.

But what’s next? If the White House wants a war with Manchin, the clear answer is not much:

While tempers flared on Sunday, the White House began privately and hastily exploring ways to keep the legislative initiative alive. A White House official told POLITICO that they feel there are critical elements of the social spending bill that must get done. They plan to continue talking with Manchin and to urge him to honor his previous commitments.

The official added that now may be an opportunity to revisit a concept of the bill that included fewer programs but was paid for over more years — an option that moderate House Democrats and party leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed for previously.

They’re kidding, right? Why didn’t they just do that from the beginning? The problem for Biden and Co in piecing these out doesn’t end with Manchin, however. If Democrats have to break these into separate bills, they’ll either have to restructure their reconciliation vehicle again or will need to get Republican votes to pass these elements. Manchin’s clearly not going to go for multiple reconciliation bills just to put BBB back together as a Frankenstein bill at $4.5 trillion, either, especially not with Biden’s team calling him a liar.

If they keep that up, Manchin might have little choice but to pre-empt Biden by flipping to the GOP and ending reconciliation altogether. If they keep playing checkers in a 3-D chess world, Manchin might see that as his only remaining option for political viability — and the only chance to get the Senate back to a semblance of normalcy and regular order.

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David Strom 5:00 PM | May 23, 2024