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With Infrastructure on the Brink, Manchin Refuses to Negotiate (UPDATED)

Every sinew of public muscle must be brought to bear on the senator from West Virginia to at least get him to negotiate.

Sen. Joe Manchin pauses during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office building on Capitol Hill on September 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

A little after 9:00 pm yesterday evening, CBS News dropped a headline announcing that a deal had been nailed down to avert a government shutdown. The opening sentence of the report read, “Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Wednesday night that an agreement to keep the government funded and prevent a government shutdown has been reached.” Schumer is the Minority Leader, really? Did I oversleep through two Novembers?

The error was still in place at 7:10 am this morning but had finally been fixed by 8:30 am. Call it an honest mistake. With people like Joe Manchin in his caucus, Schumer may as well be the minority leader. Legend says you can thwart a vampire with holy water and a crucifix. No one knows what it will take Manchin to go away, because he won’t tell anyone. He’s having too much fun, he’s protecting his own polluting interests, and O my Lord, how the corporate lobbyist money is rolling in.

A lot of corporate “news” media are having a good deal of sport with their favorite shortcut around actual reporting, “Dems in Disarray!” Beats working, I guess, but it is probably worthwhile to clarify why the progressive wing of the party is pissed off enough to try and blow up the president’s infrastructure bill, which may happen today if Speaker Pelosi brings the bill to the floor.

When this whole thing first began, the infrastructure bill was priced at $2 trillion. The Senate started to chew on it, and industry lobbyists who call people like Joe Manchin a friend gutted the proposed legislation of virtually all its climate-related policies. The bill ultimately passed by the Senate cost $1 trillion, with only half of that coming from newly raised revenues, while billions in fossil fuel subsidies were allowed to remain.

The first promise progressives got was that all the vitally needed climate elements that had been purged from the infrastructure bill would be packaged into the Build Back Better Act (BBB Act), a budget bill Schumer could get passed in the Senate with no Republican votes if every Democrat went along for the ride. That is what happened, and the addition of all those climate policies ballooned the BBB Act’s price tag to its current $3.5 trillion.

The BBB Act, with those additions, stands today as the most important piece of climate-oriented legislation to make it this far into the process, and contains a raft of other dearly needed social reforms that would change the face of the country for the better after four decades of trickle-down plunder.

The second promise, made several times by Speaker Pelosi, was that both bills would be “coupled,” so conservative Democrats wouldn’t pass the industry-favored infrastructure bill and then sink the industry-despised BBB Act. The infrastructure bill, in effect, was the hostage to fortune progressives intended to use to make sure the BBB Act at least made it to the Senate.

These promises began to unravel because Joe Manchin and his cohort have exactly as much shame as your average Trump Republican. After demanding the removal of the climate policies in the infrastructure bill, these conservative Democrats abruptly turned on the now pricier BBB Act, calling it too expensive… but it only got more expensive because of the inclusion of policies they’d ripped out of the infrastructure bill.

Over the next days and then weeks, Manchin and his crew steadfastly refused to say what price tag would satisfy them. They brought nothing to the table, and accepted nothing put before them. They pulled a bait and switch on the climate policies, and after infrastructure passed in the Senate, they refused to budge on the BBB Act. That broke promise #1. On Monday, Pelosi abandoned all pretense and announced the infrastructure bill would be brought up by itself for a vote today, thus breaking promise #2.

“There was a deal,” writes Josh Marshall for Talking Points Memo, “an agreed upon framework. The Manchin-Sinema-Gottheimer troika got their [infrastructure] bill. And as soon as they did they backed out of the deal. That is how we got here. We knew it would be hard to come to an agreement, a lot of tense moments and standoffs. What we’ve actually seen is rather different. They’re not having a hard time coming to an agreement. The troika is refusing to negotiate.”

In place of negotiation, Manchin released a statement on Wednesday — flush with words and phrases like, “fiscal insanity,” “dysfunction,” “vengefully tax,” “spend for the sake of spending,” “careless spending,” “these fatal mistakes” — that could have been produced by any one of the dime-a-dozen supply-side Republican think tanks that dot the Washington, D.C. landscape and produce facile gibberish meant only to derange the debate. The statement was, once again and entirely by design, not helpful at all.

This is the juncture where the corporate “news” people start laying blame for this mess at the feet of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which appears entirely prepared to sink the infrastructure bill in order to save the BBB Act. Now is when progressives need to start cooperating, goes the refrain; don’t they see how important this is? The people! The midterms! My goodness, Franklin Roosevelt cut deals with the worst Southern segregationists in the land when crafting the New Deal. Why won’t the progressives compromise?

That’s the thing, right there: FDR got something for the foul compromises he made. If the Congressional Progressive Caucus backs down now, a shabby pro-business half-measures infrastructure bill will pass, and the vital BBB Act will almost certainly be defeated.

Simply put: The fear is that Democrats will get nothing if the Congressional Progressive Caucus doesn’t back down, but the reality is Democrats — and the people — will get next to nothing if they do surrender. A few of Pelosi’s precious “moderates” will get to campaign on the bipartisan bill they voted for, without caring much at all about what was actually in it. For people like that, the contents of a bill matter far less than the publicity generated by the bill’s passage.

Listening to the “news,” you’d think a delayed infrastructure bill would disappear forever into the abyss. In fact, it could easily be re-offered once the BBB Act is ready for a vote, and this process could unfold the way it was promised. Congressional progressives have already compromised on the infrastructure bill and the BBB Act — both are now half of what they need to be because of those compromises — and now they are being pushed into yet another retreat. They are being promised many good things for that retreat, most of all that conservative Democrats won’t sink the BBB Act after the infrastructure bill passes alone, after seeing two promises already broken.

Speaker Pelosi would be wise to shelf the infrastructure bill for a few days, allow temperatures to cool, and finish drafting the BBB Act. Pass them both out of the House. It comes down to Joe Manchin however this finally unfolds. Even if both bills clear the House, Manchin and his conservative pals are lying in wait.

Every sinew of public muscle must be brought to bear on the senator from West Virginia to at least get him to negotiate. Make it simple — make it all about Manchin and his wretched motives — and call his bluff. It’s that, or fold and let this McConnell-esque power play get whatever it wants. If that happens, it won’t stop with this. If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s going to want a glass of milk.

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