Manchin: Maybe we can talk about Build Back Better after all

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Back on December 19, Senator Joe Manchin (D – WV) dropped a lump of coal in President Joe Biden’s stocking by saying that he was a “no” on the Build Back Better Act. He specifically said that he “could not” vote for the bill in good conscience, citing excessive costs and fears over inflation. Perhaps one of the Dickensian ghosts visited Manchin on Christmas Eve and caused him to think twice about that decision, however. Axios reported this weekend that the on-again, off-again relationship between Manchin and Biden may be back in the “on” column. Manchin is saying that he might be open to a new round of negotiations, but he has some demands up front that the progressive wing of Biden’s party isn’t going to care for at all. We appear to be back to the same cat and mouse game that bogged everything down in Washington for the past two months.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is open to reengaging on the climate and child care provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda if the White House removes the enhanced child tax credit from the $1.75 trillion package — or dramatically lowers the income caps for eligible families, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: The holdback senator’s engagement on specifics indicates negotiations between him and the White House could get back on track, even after Manchin declared he was a “no” on the package on Dec. 19.

I have to wonder if Manchin is just doing this to keep his name in the headlines or if he really does see a path forward. Most of the major sticking points he was pushing back on last year still remain in the last version we saw of the behemoth spending package. He remains convinced (correctly) that the total cost of the bill will wind up being far more than is being advertised once all of the linguistic tricks are removed from it. He’s also worried about even higher inflation rates resulting from that much magical federal money suddenly dropping into the system.

Even if those concerns could somehow be addressed, Manchin’s demand that the Child Tax Credit gets dropped is going to further infuriate the Squad and the House Progressive Caucus, who are already enraged at the number of spending items in the original version of the bill that have been gutted. There has been talk of trying to make the CTC permanent in a separate, standalone measure, but since that involves a large amount of appropriations, they wouldn’t be able to pass it via reconciliation. And where will they find ten Republicans to vote for it in the Senate, particularly in a midterm election year?

And then there is still the Senate Parliamentarian to be dealt with. The Democrats have been trying to jam massive, sweeping policy changes into this bill and then force it through the Senate via reconciliation. The Parliamentarian is growing hoarse as a result of the number of times she’s had to tell them no. Does anyone really expect her to change her tune? The only previous response from the Democrats was a half-baked scheme to simply ignore her and drive the bill through anyway, but that would likely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Doing away with the filibuster isn’t going to be an option either unless Manchin is preparing to do an about-face on that issue too.

Perhaps everyone is reading Manchin’s positions incorrectly. On New Year’s Day, Salon ran an article simply entitled, “What Joe Manchin Wants.” They claim that the CTC and all the rest of the spending items are mostly red herrings. What Manchin is really objecting to are the energy industry aspects of the bill.

As Democrats wrestle with how to rescue a reasonably robust version of Build Back Better from the ashes, consider all the progressive positions Manchin has taken in the past. All along, the Democratic senator from West Virginia swore that his lodestar was energy policy aimed at “innovation, not elimination.” In other words, encourage all kinds of new energy — particularly carbon capture and storage that might extend the coal and gas era — but also manufacturing sector breakthroughs like green hydrogen.

What is the Senator’s excuse for opposing Build Back Better?

“The energy transition my colleagues seek is …. faster than technology or the markets allow” with “catastrophic consequences for the American people,” he says.

I’m not going to argue that this is entirely wrong. Manchin has made no secret of the fact that won’t support any measures that further endanger the coal industry in West Virginia. That doesn’t mean that he opposes renewable energy. He’s just more of an “all of the above” energy fan, which I can appreciate because I hold the same views. But if that were the only stumbling block that he really cared about, the Democrats could have carved out the energy stuff into a separate bill and passed the rest of it last year by Thanksgiving. I agree that it’s important to keep track of the specific items being debated between Manchin and Biden, but we really shouldn’t oversimplify the debate. Manchin has a lot on his plate and the Democrats aren’t going to want to go along with a lot of it.