On Sunday, many pundits asserted that the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” mega-bill was completely dead; by Monday afternoon, President Joe Biden was apparently once again talking with Sen. Joe Manchin, and the bill is … well, it may not be thriving, but it’s not so dead after all.
Perhaps Manchin needed the blowup to differentiate himself from other Democrats; perhaps the White House needed it to take Manchin’s real antipathy toward Biden’s expanded child tax credit seriously. It’s also possible — as some liberals suspect — that Manchin simply likes keeping the negotiations going but has no intention of ever making a deal. If that’s the case, the bill will eventually die. But no matter how painful it would be to many Democrats, omitting the child tax credit would surely still leave them with a bill they should rush to accept.
And who knows? Sen. Mitt Romney resurfaced his own child tax credit plan on Monday and declared himself open for negotiations. It seems unlikely that Democrats could find the needed votes with Romney (and perhaps a few other Republicans), but if that turns out to be the only game in town and it can be advanced in addition to the climate, health care and other provisions that would remain in a slightly-less-mega-bill, Democrats will only have to beat the status quo to find something they can live with.
A few more points on all this.
First, I’ve seen people argue that some moderate liberal Senate Democrats who aren’t enthusiastic for Build Back Better may have been hiding behind Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and might be quite happy if the bill stays dead. Plausible! But House Democrats were nearly unanimous in voting for a larger bill than what appears to be on the table in the Senate, with the only dissent being a (more liberal side) complaint about the state-and-local tax deduction cap.
Moderate liberals in the House could’ve pushed for their priorities. They didn’t, other than insisting on passage of a separate infrastructure bill. If they’re unhappy with the bill but not doing anything about it, in a situation where one Senate vote could sink the whole thing? I’m not sure we need to care about whatever unease they may have.
As for Manchin, there’s a lot of nonsense out there about him not really being a Democrat. I have my criticisms of the FiveThirtyEight data on presidential support, but the basics are clear: Manchin votes with other Democrats, and with Biden’s position, all the time.
And there’s a significant gap between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. With a Republican in Manchin’s seat, even in the unlikely event that the replacement was a moderate, Democrats would not have passed their major COVID-19-relief bill earlier in the year, and would have no chance for even a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better.
Of course, if Manchin’s seat was held by a Republican, Mitch McConnell would be the Senate majority leader, and Democratic legislation — along with most judicial and executive-branch nominations — wouldn’t get to the floor for a vote anyway.
All this bears on speculation about Manchin switching parties. Certainly, that would be a serious threat to the Democrats, who have a strong incentive to keep him happy. But Manchin has good reasons to stick with his party, even if his chances for re-election as a Democrat don’t seem high. For one thing, he’d have to radically change his voting pattern to win a Republican primary, and it’s possible he simply doesn’t want to do that.
But I suspect a bigger deterrent to switching is the current condition of the Republican Party. Whatever McConnell might promise Manchin, he knows that former President Donald Trump would not consider himself bound by a Republican Senate leader he’s attacking almost every day, and Manchin can’t do much about his votes against Trump in both impeachment trials and on several other matters. All good reasons to stay put.
One more point. While the success or failure of Build Back Better has important consequences for the nation, it will likely have limited direct effects on midterm or presidential elections. It’s possible there are indirect effects — a bill that improves the economy would help incumbents — but the idea that a legislative failure would destroy or end a presidency is always an enormous exaggeration. Similarly, a delay in passage is unlikely to have any important consequences for Biden or the Democrats. Again: What’s at stake here is certainly important, but it’s policy, not elections.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.
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