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Washington Closes the Book on 2021


The Senate left Washington last week without passing the Build Back Better Act. For Democrats, it's a sour note on which to end the year.

Right up until this past Saturday, Democrats in Washington hoped that the first session of the 117th Congress would end not with a whimper, but with a bang.


But then Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) took to the screen on Fox News Sunday where he answered 2021’s $1.75 trillion-dollar question: would he support President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan or not?


The answer? No. Or, as it turns out, not yet and not without a lot more compromise. But more on that in a minute.


The run-up to the interview was made-for-TV drama. According to reports, only Sen. Manchin and a few close aides — along with a White House staff member they had alerted just minutes before the interview — knew what Sen. Manchin would say. Based on his flummoxed reaction, Fox News host Brett Baier certainly didn’t have an inkling of the news his show was about to break. President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after Sen. Manchin’s interview that they felt blindsided. They definitely thought negotiations were ongoing, and hoped to have the Build Back Better Act approved by the Senate early in 2022.


By now everyone has heard the bang. So where will Democrats go from here? Will there be more fireworks in 2022 or was Sunday the last whimper of the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda?


Democrats Still Plan a Vote

While the White House was (somewhat) measured in its Sunday criticism of Sen. Manchin – and the president and the senator ended up speaking by phone that evening – other Democrats are spoiling for a fight that they hope will put the West Virginia Democrat in a tough spot … or at least on the record.


After Sen. Manchin was on Fox News Sunday, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) appeared on CNN. He said if Sen. Manchin “doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”


It appears that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) agrees. Earlier this week, Sen. Schumer committed to holding a Senate vote on the motion to proceed to the Build Back Better Act shortly after the Senate returns to Washington in January.


Do Sens. Sanders and Schumer think Sen. Manchin is bluffing? Perhaps, but more likely they view Manchin’s Sunday proclamation as another stage of an ongoing negotiation. Vox reporter Andrew Prokop asked whether Sen. Manchin is “just trying to get Democrats to finally take his negotiating demands seriously — basically, holding out for a better deal?”


Prokop argued Sen. Manchin eventually could “work on and support his own compromise bill” and noted the senator did just that earlier this year regarding voting rights legislation. “Democrats had crafted a massive bill … but Manchin panned the bill and announced he wouldn’t vote for it,” Prokop explained. “Then, over the ensuing months he negotiated a compromise” that the then “proudly supported,”


Prokop pointed out that Sen. Manchin has been saying for months that he wants a bill that focuses on executing a few key initiatives over a full 10 years and doesn’t increase the deficit. While Democrats have tweaked around the edges, cutting the overall price of the bill and some provisions, at its core the bill still tries to fund a lot of priorities over a much shorter time horizon – an approach that Sen. Manchin, and Republicans, believes is a gimmick, since Congress is unlikely to end these popular (and expensive) programs once they expire.


Sen. Manchin restated his preference for a shorter list of priorities on Sunday. Does that mean there is hope?


Can Sen. Manchin’s Concerns be Addressed?

Over the last several months, Sen. Manchin had voiced worries about the overall size of the Build Back Better plan, and specific, individual provisions within it. He has been uncomfortable with extending the expansion of the child tax credit. He also was staunchly against an energy plan that would have penalized utilities for using natural gas- or coal-based power.


Based on what Sen. Manchin said Sunday, however, it does not appear his concerns have to do with any one provision of the bill that could be altered or eliminated. As The Hill explained, Sen. Manchin is worried about the impact the legislation would have on inflation and national debt. He also said the recent increase in COVID infections caused by the omicron variant caused him to rethink any desire to support the Build Back Better plan.


“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” Sen. Manchin said. “I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight.”


This is why, Sen. Manchin has since argued, he suggested to the White House that the Senate delay consideration of the Build Back Better Act until March or April of 2022 and focused at the beginning of the near year on curbing inflation and addressing the pandemic.


Voters seem to agree.


Americans Increasingly Worried About Inflation

According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, inflation has caused at least some hardship for at least 45 percent of Americans. (A Wall Street Journal survey had the number even higher: 56 percent.)


The impact varies widely at different ends of the income scale, however. Only 29 percent of people from households that earn more than $100,000 said inflation has affected them. Nearly three-quarters of people from households earning less than $40,000 said inflation had harmed their family’s financial situation. For about 28 percent of American households earning less than $40,000, inflation has been a severe hardship.


The median household income in West Virginia is about $46,000. Inflation is a legitimate concern for Sen. Manchin’s constituents. And while there is debate as to whether the Build Back Better Act would exacerbate the problem, Manchin has been clear for months that he wouldn’t support a bill unless it was demonstrably counter-inflationary.


Americans also want Congress to address inflation. An ABC News-Ipsos poll released last week found 69 percent of Americans disapprove of how President Biden has handled inflation. That includes 94 percent of Republicans who said they disapprove, but also 54 percent of Democrats. Among independent voters, 71 percent disapprove. According to a CNN survey released last week, 72 percent of Americans think the U.S. government is doing too little to reduce inflation.


Sen. Manchin is not up for reelection in 2022, but if these numbers hold it will only get more and more difficult to convince him to support the Build Back Better plan — even if Democrats narrow it even further.


That brings us to this question: If Sen. Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better plan is really rooted in his and his constituents’ concerns about inflation, is there anything Democrats can do to save it? After all, controversial legislation has gotten a second life before … right?


The Affordable Care Act Example

Readers might recall that it took a full year for former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden to pass their signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, as Vox has explained, in late 2009 and early 2010, Democrats were “split by fights over abortion and the public option. When Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) died of brain cancer in August 2009 and Republican Scott Brown won his seat five months later, there was a very real belief that it could spell doom for health care reform.”


It was a cold, whimpering winter for Democrats and the Affordable Care Act, but the doldrums were temporary. The Affordable Care Act was signed into law by March 2010, 14 months into the Obama presidency.


Here is the difference between then and now, however: even with Sen. Brown’s victory, Democrats held a substantial Senate majority. They did not need to rely on a Vice President Biden to cast a tie-breaking vote. There was a much larger margin of error and no single senator had veto power over the entire legislative effort.


Democrats already were relying on the budget reconciliation to get Build Back Better through the Senate. The only way to victory, then, is through Sen. Manchin. (And let’s not forget that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has not committed to supporting the bill as it is currently written.)


And so, for the Democrats, this year ended with a whimper, which means Democrats go limping into the 2022 election year. Can they save the Build Back Better Act? Can they do so without upsetting an inflation-anxious electorate? (Remember Democrats successfully passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010—and were rewarded by voters in the 2010 midterm elections with what former President Obama referred to as “a shellacking.”)


Only time, and Joe Manchin, will tell.

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