Joe Manchin knocked President Joe Biden’s agenda further off its axis on Monday, refusing to endorse a White House-blessed $1.75 trillion social spending bill framework.
The West Virginia Democrat also rejected House Democrats’ gambit to win his vote, which involves holding up a bipartisan infrastructure bill he helped write. He told reporters at an unusual news conference that he would not be pressured into supporting his party’s more progressive social spending bill and decried the “shell games, budget gimmicks” used in writing it.
Perhaps most perilously for the House progressives whom he criticized for holding up the $550 billion infrastructure bill, Manchin made clear that despite his warm statements about the White House’s framework, he can’t be viewed as an automatic yes just because he’s a Democrat.
“I’m open to supporting a final bill that helps move our country forward. But I’m equally open to voting against a bill that hurts our country,” Manchin said, citing inflation and budget deficits as his main concerns. Democrats have linked their infrastructure and social spending bills as part of a strategic attempt to unite their disparate wings to advance major legislative goals this year.
Manchin’s statement amounts to a major gut check for Biden and his party’s fragile majorities, which require lockstep unity in the 50-50 Senate and near-total support in the House. Democrats need Manchin’s vote to pass the rest of Biden’s climate and social spending agenda, but Manchin’s only real demand on Monday was that the House immediately pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
As of Monday morning, many House Democrats projected they could vote this week on infrastructure and the social policy measure, passed using budget reconciliation rules that allow it to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. That timeline could slip past this week after Manchin’s press conference, which also appeared to embolden House moderates.
Progressives in the House were privately scrambling in the wake of Manchin’s unexpected criticism of the social spending bill after months of behind-the-scenes talks intended to win him over. Many of those liberals were prepared to vote yes on both of Biden’s bills this week, in large part because they believed the White House had secured both senators’ votes on the roughly $1.75 trillion package.
While some members, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), mostly seemed resolved to ignore Manchin for the moment, others feared his comments could upend plans to finally vote on both the social spending and infrastructure bills this week. Speaker Nancy Pelosi informed some members over the weekend she aimed to bring both to the floor, though other senior Democrats were more skeptical of such a quick timeline given the unresolved issues.
In a uniquely fast statement released after Manchin spoke, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden aides “remain confident that the plan will gain Senator Manchin’s support.”
The infrastructure bill has twice now stalled out in the House, infuriating moderate senators who wrote it. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were both top negotiators on that legislation, leading House progressives to balk at passing it without ironclad commitments on the climate and social spending bill.
Describing it as “time to vote” on infrastructure in the House, Manchin made clear that his commitment to support the social spending plan is not yet forthcoming: “I will not support a reconciliation package that expands social programs and irresponsibly adds to our $29 trillion in national debt.”
The party-line package is paid for with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, but Manchin questioned whether that math would really add up. The bill, which is still being reworked to add prescription drug reform, has not received a score from the Congressional Budget Office.
Manchin took no questions after his remarks, other than to say he wouldn’t negotiate in public anymore. He’s recently raised doubts about adding paid leave and expanding Medicare to the social spending bill, comments that led to paid leave’s omission from last week’s framework and Medicare’s limitation to hearing aides. As it’s currently written, the bill expands early education, spends hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change and extends Democrats’ boosted child tax credit a year.
Jayapal, who leads the nearly 100-member House progressive group, said on CNN that House Democrats are still prepared to vote on both bills in the coming days and chalked up Manchin’s statement this way: “Sometimes tempers get a little flared toward the end of negotiations. I hope that’s all this is.”
A day earlier, Jayapal and her whip team had begun their own internal count on how many progressives were willing to back both Biden priorities this week. Many liberals had privately indicated they were ready to support both during a Sunday call.
But it’s not clear how much Manchin’s public skepticism will set progressives back in that whip count — and how significantly it affects Pelosi’s leadership team’s plans to bring both to the floor. The progressive caucus will huddle again Tuesday.
And it’s not just Manchin who has issues. In the House, a small group of moderate Democrats are privately warning they aren’t ready to back Biden’s broader bill on the floor this week.
Between four and eight centrists have raised concerns to leadership about either process or policy on the $1.75 trillion bill, according to one source close to the talks. Their issues range from fierce opposition to immigration reform as well as a proposed methane emissions fee to a demand that the bill is fully scored by independent budget analysts and that it can clear the Senate’s byzantine budget rules.
Senior Democrats believe they can resolve several of those concerns this week. On the scoring, for instance, leadership plans to compile data from the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Department of Treasury to make centrists comfortable without a full CBO score.
Immigration is by far the most volatile issue in the House, where Pelosi can only afford to lose three Democrats on the final vote. At least three Latino Democrats have threatened to oppose any social spending bill that doesn’t include immigration policy.
But a much larger group of moderates — including many of the caucus’s most vulnerable members — have said they would tank the bill if contentious immigration provisions are included.
In addition, few Democrats want to support a bill without prescription drug reform. Democrats in the House and Senate are nearing an agreement on adding compromise language to the social spending bill that would empower Medicare to negotiate some prices down.