Ever since Joe Manchin drove a stake through the Build Back Better Act, the Biden administration’s marquee climate and social spending bill, Democrats in Congress have been talking somewhat informally about how to shape a more modest successor that the West Virginia Senator might accept.
One thing almost everyone agrees on is that it will have to be given a different name. But beyond that? What, exactly, does our nation’s most famous houseboater really want?
Deficit reduction, it turns out. Maybe a lot of it. In an article published Thursday, Manchin is quoted telling Politico that, in order to win his vote, his colleagues would have to reimagine the legislation formally known as Build Back Better as a vehicle for bringing down the national debt.
As Politico puts it (with a note from yours truly):
Rather than start with spending priorities and then evaluating how to pay for them, Manchin wants to start with tax reform as the goal of any party-line effort. He’s also insisting that social programs go through typical committee consideration, which allows Republicans more input. And he doesn’t just want it fully paid for; he wants it to significantly cut the deficit and put debt on a “downward trajectory.”
“That’s really what reconciliation is for: to get your financial house back in order. And that’s the thing that can be done and should be done,” Manchin said. He said he’s willing to reengage in negotiations if his fellow Democrats “want to be realistic about what the real problems are and how we can fix the problems. The main thing is getting our financial house in order.” [Note: Budget reconciliation is the legislative tactic Democrats are relying on to circumvent a filibuster and pass their bill with 50 votes.]
This is not a particularly surprising demand from Manchin, a longtime deficit hawk who gets a text from his staff every morning updating him on how much the national debt increased overnight. Later in the morning during a West Virginia radio appearance, the Senator also fretted about Thursday’s higher-than-expected inflation number (he said the Federal Reserve needed to “stop pussyfooting” around take action on it). Manchin has said that one of the main reasons he does not want to pass a large new spending bill is that he is worried that it will further fuel inflation; in theory, cutting government deficits might be one way to curb it.
While his main priority is bringing down the debt, he said he would also be comfortable passing some spending, including on climate, according to NBC News reporter Sahil Kapur, who caught the appearance.
In previous comments, Manchin has previously voiced support for universal pre-k and permanently making the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies more generous. Today, however, he seemed to bat down the idea of major childcare spending.
So as of now: Deficit reduction in return for a climate bill, that might include some other Democratic priorities sprinkled on top, but also might not.
About a month ago, I wrote a piece arguing that this was the sort of deal that might bring Manchin back to the table for negotiations. So, both as a pundit who would personally like to see my powers of prognostication vindicated, and as a normal human being who would really, really like the United States to take serious action on climate, I’m hoping that Manchin’s offer is sincere.
Broadly speaking, he’s proposing a deal Democrats should be able to accept, at this point. He is mostly proposing to reduce the deficit through tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations, as well as by allowing Medicare to negotiate over prescription drug prices. Most Democrats are in favor of those things, even if they would prefer to use the extra revenue from tax increases to fund new social programs, rather than cutting the debt. As long as they can get a significant amount of climate spending in the bargain, the majority of the party would likely swallow Manchin’s trade, since the alternative at the moment is getting nothing.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that every Democrat would be on board, and the party has zero votes to spare in the Senate.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Demcrats’ other centrist wellspring of drama, has previously opposed some of the specific tax proposals that Manchin now says he favors, such as increases in the corporate and capital gains rates. (Other Democrats oppose them, too.) Maybe it’s possible to craft a deal that makes both of them happy. But as has often been the case during this saga, the question is whether Manchin is putting a genuine compromise on the table, or simply making his party an offer he knows they’ll refuse.
Still, I’m choosing optimism for the moment, and am trying to think up fun new names for the Son of Build Back Better, whatever this maybe, sorta, kinda potential deal turns out to include. At the moment, my favorite option is Deficits and Inflation Reduction Emergency Act, aka the DIRE Act. Because how else would you sum up the current state of Biden’s agenda?