WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Joe Manchin declared Tuesday that President Joe Biden’s vast social and environment bill is “dead,” using his strongest language to date to underscore that any revival of Democrats’ top domestic priorities would have to arise from negotiations that are now moribund.
The remarks by the West Virginia Democrat didn’t substantively alter the stance he’d taken in December, when he said he couldn’t support the legislation as written, essentially dooming it. But his latest comments illustrated anew the election-year challenges facing his party as it struggles to resuscitate parts of the package and win over voters weary of the two-year-old pandemic and coping with the worst inflation in decades.
“What Build Back Better bill?” Manchin said Tuesday, using the legislation’s name, when reporters asked about it. “There is no, I mean, I don’t know what you’re all talking about.” Asked if he’d had any talks about it, he added, “No, no, no no. It’s dead.”
Manchin has repeatedly said he remains open to talks aimed at crafting a smaller bill that could include its provisions aimed at reducing carbon emissions, creating free pre-Kindergarten programs and increasing federal health care subsidies. But he has said negotiations have yet to begin.
That lack of activity, along with Biden’s dismal approval rating in polls, has prompted Democratic worries that the effort could fade away.
“I’m open to talk to everybody, always have been,” he said Monday. “I just want to make sure we find a balance and something we can afford, and do it and do it right.”
And while he expressed support for the original bill’s provisions bolstering renewable energy, he said he also wants to “use all the fossil industry in the cleanest, absolute possible versions that you can.” Manchin’s state is a significant coal producer and he has added clout on the issue as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment on Manchin’s remarks. She said Democratic lawmakers have “strong passion” for lowering child and elder care, health and prescription drug costs and “ensuring the tax system is fair,” which to Democrats means raising taxes on the rich and large companies.
In December, Manchin’s abrupt announcement of his opposition to the 10-year, roughly $2 trillion measure, which had already passed the House, snuffed out its prospects in the Senate. His party needs his vote to prevail in that chamber, where every Republican opposes the legislation but Vice President Kamala Harris can vote to break ties.
Manchin, perhaps his party’s most conservative senator, has said the bill could further fuel inflation, is too expensive and finances too many programs.
Other Democrats say the measure would help families handle rising costs by bolstering the federal aid they get for health care and education costs, and its expanded child care assistance would help many people return to work. They also note that the bill would largely pay for itself by raising taxes on big corporations and high-income people.
Democrats have been hoping for agreement on a new package, or to be near one, by Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address. That’s seeming unlikely with lawmakers focusing on another bill financing government agencies by Feb. 18, when funding expires, a Supreme Court vacancy and Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine.
All this comes as both parties are showing a near daily focus on economic issues important to voters ahead of November voting when party control of Congress is at stake.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., lauded rising wages and the economy’s 5.7% growth last year, the biggest increase since 1984. He partly credited the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Democrats enacted over GOP opposition last March in Biden’s first weeks in office, saying, “The right leadership in government matters.”
Schumer said Democrats know “the work is not done” and said helping lower costs for health care, groceries and education “remains our focus.” He did not specifically mention the effort to revamp the social and environment bill or use the word “inflation,” which hit 7% last year, the worst figure in nearly four decades.
Moments later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made up for Schumer’s omission, uttering “inflation” 10 times in his remarks. “Working Americans and their families are being hammered by the worst inflation in 40 years. And Washington Democrats own it,” McConnell said.
On Monday, Democrats and their outside supporters tried to breathe new life into the social and environment bill or its key components.
More than 20 House Democrats wrote a letter to Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying they should pass “the strongest and most comprehensive version” of that bill that could pass the Senate. They emphasized its $555 billion for climate change initiatives, which they said would also create jobs and said, “The time for transformational climate action is right now.”
Forty House Democrats wrote to Pelosi and Schumer, urging them to pass legislation reducing prescription drug costs, a key element of the social and environment bill.
And more than 250 labor, liberal and other groups ran a full page ad in The New York Times pressing senators to revive the Build Back Better package, saying, “America’s workers, businesses and families need this law.”
Among the programs they singled out as essential were paid family and medical leave and a permanent extension of now-expired monthly checks for the child tax credit. Both programs have drawn opposition from Manchin and seem unlikely to survive if a new version of the bill is written.