We Can’t Let Build Back Better Be Replaced With Manchin’s Wish List

On October 28, the White House released an upbeat statement asserting that the president had successfully negotiated a Build Back Better (BBB) framework with Sen. Joe Manchin and other recalcitrant Democratic senators. It was, of course, wildly optimistic. Two months later, having already negotiated the size of Biden’s signature legislation down from more than $3 trillion to not much more than half that amount, Senator Manchin pulled the plug on the entire package.

The demise of Build Back Better represented, for Biden, a humiliation. It was not only a public relations disaster, but, more importantly, it (temporarily, at least) killed off a series of vital social infrastructure and environmental investments, from child tax credits to the creation of a truly national infrastructure to sustain the growing electric vehicle fleet on United States roadways.

Now, with midterm elections only nine months away, Democratic leaders are scrambling to find parts of the bill that they can salvage and deliver on legislatively. Yet, it may ultimately prove no easier to break the bill down into component parts, each of which could pass by a bare-majority vote in the Senate, than it was to pass the overall package last year.

Senator Manchin, who is reveling in the outsized power that his opposition to BBB has generated for him, denies that he is currently negotiating a new legislative framework with the White House. But behind the scenes, some efforts do seem to be underway to resurrect key elements of BBB, so that Democrats don’t approach the midterms entirely empty-handed.

On January 20, Biden told reporters that he thought it likely that BBB would be broken up into individual bills, so as to fast-track hundreds of billions of dollars of clean energy investments and tax credits, in particular.

Biden has some reason to feel optimistic on this. After all, Senator Manchin is on record — for whatever that is worth these days — as supporting some of the climate change components of the legislation. Yet, despite this, the president’s upbeat language regarding the possibility of bold legislation passing in the current sclerotic Senate environment came off as naive, rather than as the sober thinking of the great inter- and intra-party negotiator that Biden fashions himself as being.

Before any deal is worked out, Manchin will surely flex his political muscles again and again, and yet again. The West Virginian opposes a methane fee on gas producers, and has come out against a tax credit for the purchase of union-made electric vehicles. Manchin also opposes a universal child tax credit and moving the country toward a free community college system — both of which were central policy goals of progressives when BBB was initially crafted.

Each time BBB is redesigned in a way that suits Manchin’s mood, the progressive wing of the party — which threw its support behind the $1 trillion “bipartisan” infrastructure bill only on the promise that the Senate would then pass BBB, and which already feels cheated by Manchin’s subsequently having sabotaged the legislation — loses more of its priorities. There’s no guarantee that they will agree to break up BBB if it means ultimately sacrificing key pieces of social infrastructure legislation, as well as tax credits that encourage Americans to buy union-made products.

Indeed, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) has called on the Senate to pass BBB in its entirety by March 1, so as to allow Biden to tout its passage in his upcoming State of the Union address. CPC head Pramila Jayapal, who put her political credibility on the line by breaking with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other so-called Squad members, and voting for the infrastructure legislation without simultaneous passage of BBB, has been scathing in her criticism of Manchin’s opposition to the latter legislation, saying it showed a “lack of integrity.” The CPC’s feeling of betrayal will make it harder for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to rally enough Democrats to pass a series of individual policies that lose the overarching transformative character of BBB and replace it with a Manchin-dictated wish list.

And even if progressives can work with Manchin, perhaps in exchange for his being willing to throw his support behind some of their other priorities, such as reining in the uniquely high drug prices Big Pharma charges in the U.S. market, it’s possible that, at that point, the other Senate holdout, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, will step in to put the kibosh on that.

For while Manchin has expressed distaste for Big Pharma’s squeeze on U.S. consumers, Sinema has gone to bat in defense of the pharmaceutical behemoths and against price restrictions in recent months. And, despite the fact that her path to the Senate was paved with good statements and intentions on the environment, she has shown that she is willing to stand in the way of the much-needed environmental investments contained in BBB in order to get her way on protecting the pharmaceutical industry, which has become a vast source of contributions to her campaigns over the past few years.

It’s possible that Biden might yet be able to square this circle. It’s possible that his much-touted negotiating skills will indeed kick in and somehow find points of agreement (and mutual trust) between progressives, Manchin, Sinema, and all the other parts of the Democratic constellation. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.