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The Tragic Opera Starring Joe Manchin Has Lasted Far Too Long

So continues the saga of a West Virginia coal baron who made up his mind months ago.

Sen. Joe Manchin walks the grounds of the White House on November 18, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

With President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better (BBB) Act once again teetering before the legislative abyss, I need to make one thing brilliantly clear: I am so sick of writing about Sen. Joe Manchin, I want to bite myself until I forget he ever existed in the first place.

It is a pointless endeavor from top to bottom, a snipe hunt ad infinitum. I’m not a goddamn theater critic, though maybe I should have been, because it seems like all I’ve done since August is cover the operatic intransigence of a West Virginia coal baron who made up his mind months ago but continues to play out the line because he’s raking in gobs of campaign cash from the energy lobby.

This is Broadway now, jazz hands jazz hands, “What’ll he do? What’ll he say? What’s gonna happen next?” tappa-tappa-tappity-tappa, and exit stage right … until the next show, and the next, and the next. Manchin does not want the BBB Act to pass in any meaningful form, and not just because that is the outcome his paymasters desire. He himself has financial skin in the game of delaying clean energy alternatives for as long as possible, and that is exactly what he is doing.

Recall how we got here.

When the infrastructure bill was being considered in the Senate, Manchin led the charge to have virtually every effective bit of climate policy stripped out. Those policies were life-boated over to the BBB Act on the promise they would be passed within that bill. Manchin immediately laid siege to the bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag. When progressives devised an elegant solution to his concerns, and after hundreds of billions worth of good and noble policy was removed, he decided to spend a few long, hot weeks absolutely refusing to state publicly what he considered an acceptable price for the bill. This completely froze the process.

After that, Manchin moved the goal posts again by decrying how the infrastructure bill was being “held hostage” by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which insisted that bill and the BBB Act be passed simultaneously. After that, it was the national debt he was worried about. And then it was the clean energy proposals which drew his ire.

Note well: Manchin threw all this weight from the other side of the building, while the House was still debating its contents. After each demand, House Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus scrambled to appease him, only to be greeted with yet another complaint. Had that debate gone on much longer, Manchin would have demanded the bill be printed in blue ink — no, red ink — no, wait, black is better — no, blue.

The BBB Act is in the Senate for consideration, so Manchin no longer has to yell down the corridor to pour sand in the gears. His latest beef, apparently, is with the child tax credit, a crown jewel of the bill whose temporary version has served some 35 million families during a catastrophic pandemic. Lacking a resolution to the BBB Act, those families probably got their last credit payment yesterday.

The credit has worked as well as any government program has, and is a uniting feature within the broader Democratic caucus. Everyone loves it, so of course it has to go, because Manchin thinks it is too expensive and he fears the creation of an “entitlement nation.”

Aside from New Mexico, Manchin’s West Virginia is provided with more federal aid like the credit than any other state. This will hurt Manchin’s constituents badly, but he apparently could not possibly care less. He has his orders, and is acting on them with the cold ruthlessness of a hungry shark. As in past “negotiations,” Manchin is refusing to state clearly what he wants. I can tell you: He wants to burn enough time so the BBB Act gets punted into next year, where it will almost certainly die without a whimper. Mission accomplished.

“[T]he news left Democrats stunned and furious,” reports The Washington Post, “as they awaited further details to what Manchin actually seeks. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the tax-focused Senate Finance Committee, described the expanded child tax credit program as a ‘lifeline’ — and said lawmakers are looking at alternate means to adopt it potentially outside of the context of their now-stalled $2 trillion package.”

Stunned and furious, gotcha, great. That and a dollar will get you exactly what President Biden has gotten after multiple face-to-face negotiations with the shadow president from coal country. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly expressed his confidence that the BBB Act can be passed before Christmas, but that milk has curdled. Manchin wants to wait until next year — a year when the whole building will be singularly focused on the upcoming midterm elections — to do anything with the bill, and his latest back-and-fill over the child tax credit makes that an all but unavoidable conclusion to this fiasco.

It wasn’t all Manchin, of course. He was aided and abetted by a general uprising of conservative Democrats, whose pharmaceutical paymasters had an agenda all their own. Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Jon Tester were on board with Manchin’s drag-the-anchor strategy, and did their parts when the moment called for it.

Call it mostly Joe, then. The $550 billion in the BBB Act to address the growing climate calamity wasn’t nearly enough to properly address the crisis, but it was a start, and now it’s locked in Manchin’s steam trunk, right next to money to feed children and the very idea of hope.

In the due course of time, when the ocean comes for West Virginia and the rest of the East Coast, when the flood tide scoops up all that coal slurry percolating under the stars in Big Stone Gap and Black Lick and dumps it into every home and business and classroom in the region, we can all thank Joe Manchin for saving us from becoming an “entitlement nation.”

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