Democrats race to salvage $1.75tn Build Back Better bill

Senate Democrats will meet on Tuesday for tense talks to try to chart a path forward for Joe Biden’s $1.75tn Build Back Better package, after fellow Democrat Joe Manchin all but torpedoed the president’s economic agenda. Many lawmakers have already returned to their home states for the Christmas period. But […]

Senate Democrats will meet on Tuesday for tense talks to try to chart a path forward for Joe Biden’s $1.75tn Build Back Better package, after fellow Democrat Joe Manchin all but torpedoed the president’s economic agenda.

Many lawmakers have already returned to their home states for the Christmas period. But Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, said Democrats in the upper chamber of Congress would hold a “virtual special caucus” call on Tuesday evening — which the Senate majority leader noted would be the “longest night of the year”.

In a letter to colleagues on Monday, Schumer placed the blame squarely on Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, for what he called “deep discontent and frustration” within the Democratic caucus.

Schumer’s intervention came one day after Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, explicitly rejected Biden’s flagship $1.75tn social spending bill, which would make unprecedented investments in early childhood education, public healthcare and efforts to combat climate change.

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” Manchin said on Fox News on Sunday, after weeks of intense negotiations with the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.

Manchin, who has opposed specific components of the Build Back Better bill — including the introduction of paid family and medical leave for all American workers — has also taken issue with the sheer size of the spending bill, claiming that more fiscal restraint is needed at a time of rising inflation.

The White House has argued that the costs of the package would be offset largely with tax increases on the wealthy and large companies. The left-leaning advocacy group Invest in America published an open letter this month signed by more than 50 economists, including former Fed vice-chair Alan Blinder, arguing the package would counteract rising consumer prices by cutting costs on things like child care and utilities.

Schumer on Monday insisted Manchin’s intervention would not “deter” Democrats from “continuing to try to find a way forward”, adding that lawmakers should expect to vote on the bill in early 2022.

Schumer’s comments were echoed by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, who said at an event in San Francisco that she was “not deterred at all”. “I have confidence that Senator Manchin cares about our country and that at some point, very soon, we can take up the legislation,” Pelosi said.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said Biden was “no stranger to legislative challenges”, adding: “We are going to continue to take steps, work like hell, to get it done.”

But the package as written is almost certainly doomed to fail in a Senate that Democrats control by the slimmest of margins. Manchin’s vote is crucial in order to secure majority support, since Democrats hold the upper chamber, 50-50, with vice-president Kamala Harris able to cast a tiebreaking vote, and no Republicans have voiced support for the package.

The West Virginia senator has shown no sign of backing down since his intervention at the weekend. In fact, Manchin appeared to dig his heels in further on Monday, lashing out at the White House in an interview with a local radio station in West Virginia. Manchin’s comments suggested his grievances with the White House were both personal and policy-related.

“They figure surely to God we can move one person. Surely, we can badger and beat one person up,” Manchin said. “Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from, [where] they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.”

“I just got to the wits’ end,” Manchin added. “And they know the real reason what happened . . . It’s not the president, it’s the staff. They drove some things and they put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable.”

The White House, which issued a scathing statement after Manchin’s Fox News interview on Sunday, did not directly respond to the senator’s latest comments. But in an op-ed in the Hill newspaper on Monday, Washington columnist and Manchin confidante Steve Clemons suggested the senator had walked away from the negotiating table after being singled out in a White House press release last week.

“When I saw Manchin’s name in the presidential statement, I knew he would perceive it as a breach of process, a breach of spirit, a breach of Joe and Joe working this out,” Clemons said, noting that Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat from Arizona who has also taken issue with parts of Biden’s economic agenda, was not name-checked by the White House.

Clemons suggested that lawmakers and the White House might regroup “when tempers cool after the holidays” and find a fresh deal to satisfy Manchin’s demands.

But tensions remained high in the president’s party in the countdown to Christmas, even as Manchin made behind-the-scenes overtures to his colleagues.

Pramila Jayapal, the Democratic congresswoman who chairs the House progressive caucus, slammed the senator on Monday, saying that while she had taken a call from Manchin this week, she believed the senator had betrayed fellow lawmakers’ trust by going “back on his word”.

“That lack of integrity is stunning in a town where people say the only thing that you have is your word,” Jayapal said.

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