Politics

Joe Manchin’s “No” Might Be Just What Democrats Need

Alternatively, it’s a disaster.

Sen. Joe Manchin walking down a hallway in the basement of the U.S. Capitol Building, with a smile on his face and his hands thrown up in the air.
Is Joe Manchin a “no” for good, or just for now? Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

After months of negotiations, wooing and tension, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced Sunday that he was a “no” on the Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden and Democrats’ signature legislation to help families and children and to address climate change. Without his vote, the legislation is dead. Since the death of their signature legislation is not something Biden and just about every other Democrat in Congress can accept, though, they won’t stop working on Manchin anytime soon.

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Do they have a chance, or is this really it?

Manchin made the announcement on Fox News Sunday. Citing long-standing concerns he’s had about inflation and the national debt, as well as the emergence of a new COVID variant and “the geopolitical unrest that we have,” Manchin told host Bret Baier that he “cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.”

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“You’re done,” Baier followed up. “This is a ‘no.’ ”

“This is a ‘no’ on this legislation,” Manchin said.

The White House, in response, issued the sharpest statement it’s released against a sitting Democrat, accusing Manchin of breaking his word that he would keep negotiating. “If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.

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“Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning,” she added, “we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.”

There is precedent for Manchin “killing” a top Democratic legislative priority as a means of putting a fright into his fellow lawmakers. It happened with the For the People Act, Democrats’ sprawling elections and voting reform bill. In early June, he said he would be a “no” on that, as well. That announcement—made on a Sunday, paired with a Fox News Sunday appearance—also didn’t leave much wiggle room. “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy,” Manchin wrote in an op-ed, “and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act.”

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His fellow Democrats didn’t throw up their arms and leave it at that. They gave Manchin a pen and paper and asked him to list what he could and couldn’t support. They found he could support quite a bit of it. From the For the People Act’s ashes arose the Freedom to Vote Act, a more tailored bill that has the support of 50 Democratic senators, including Manchin. (They’re still figuring out the whole “way around the filibuster” aspect, something they don’t have to worry about on a reconciliation bill like BBB.)

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The best Democrats can hope for, at this point, is that this is Manchin running the same play: saying the bill is dead, and compelling Democrats to hand him the pen and paper. Democrats need the italics I’m adding here—“This is a ‘no’ on this legislation”—to be real.

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On BBB, we already know what sorts of changes Manchin has been insisting on, and he explained his vision again in today’s Fox News appearance. He wants fewer programs implemented for a longer duration. That would require a rewrite of the bill the House passed, which was loaded with budget gimmicks used to squeeze in as many priorities as possible. Democrats hadn’t been willing to do that rewrite yet, preferring to tinker around the edges. After a scare like today’s, they’ll be pleading with Manchin for permission to do it his way.

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The consequences for Democrats of getting nothing here would be catastrophic. Many of them view this moment, reasonably, as their last chance to pass the sweeping social reforms they’ve spent a decade working on for, well, maybe another decade. On climate change, they view it as the last legislative chance, period, to ward off the worst of it. Politically, many Democratic voters will view failure on this as an overall failure of the Democratic Congress and the Biden administration, and will not be enthused to turn out in the 2022 midterms. Also, it’s going to have been a giant waste of time when there is no time to waste, with a true emergency in the never-ending pandemic that needs the president and Congress’ attention.

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There’s more: On Capitol Hill, Biden had given his word to House progressives that he would secure Manchin’s vote on BBB in order to get them to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Such a broken promise would make Biden weak, and make it difficult for legislators to take his word seriously again. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile—who also urged progressives to take the president at his word—would have made vulnerable House members walk the plank for nothing.

So, yeah, they’d better hope this is just posturing from Manchin, and that he’ll accept the pen and paper to write whatever bill he can live with. Either way, Manchin’s golden.

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