Democrats are struggling to pick up the pieces after Sen. Joe Manchin effectively crushed President Joe Biden’s big domestic policy bill. But they face serious questions whether the $2 trillion initiative can be refashioned to win his crucial vote or the party will be saddled with a devastating defeat.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed on Monday that the chamber would vote early in the new year on Biden’s “Build Back Better Act” as it now stands so every senator “has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.”
Biden and Manchin spoke later Sunday, according to a person familiar with the call, first reported by Politico. It was cordial and respectful, said the person who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
But the conservative West Virginia Democrat and his party are so far apart, his relationships so bruised after months of failed talks, it’s unclear how they even get back to the negotiating table, let alone revive the sprawling more than 2,100-page social services and climate change bill.
The setback throws Biden’s signature legislative effort into deep doubt at a critical time, closing out the end of the president’s first year and ahead of congressional midterm elections when the Democrats’ slim hold on Congress is at risk.
Coupled with solid Republican opposition, Manchin’s vote is vital in the 50-50 split Senate on this and other initiatives, including the Democrats’ priority voting rights legislation that Schumer also promised would come to an early vote.
From the White House, Psaki struck a more conciliatory tone than her weekend hardball reaction to Manchin, saying Biden is a “longtime friend” of the senator and the president is focused on moving forward.
Steeped in the politics of a state that Biden lost decisively to Donald Trump, Manchin has little to gain from aligning too closely with fellow Democrats, raising fresh questions over whether he still has a place in the party.
In a radio interview Monday, he reiterated his position that the social and environment bill has far too much government spending — on child care, health care and other programs — without enough restrictions on incomes or work requirements.
But the lifelong Democrat was less clear when asked if the party still has room for him — describing himself as “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate.”
The next steps remain highly uncertain for the president and his party. Biden returned to Washington from his Delaware home and lawmakers assessed their options with Congress on recess for the holiday break. The president’s reputation as a seasoned legislator who wants to show the country government can work hangs in the balance along with his proposals.
The White House appeared to take interest in Manchin’s preference for a reimagined bill that would tackle a few top priorities, for longer duration, rather than the multifaceted and far-reaching House-passed version.
For example, Manchin wants to authorize the social programs for the full 10 years of a standard budget window — rather than just a few years as Democrats would as a way to keep the price tag down. That change would force painful cuts elsewhere in the package.
But it will be extraordinarily difficult for progressive and centrist Democrats to rebuild trust to launch a fresh round of negotiations having devoted much of Biden’s first year in office to what is now essentially a collapsed effort.