build back better

Give Manchin What He Wants Already

Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Democratic Party is finally trying to make Joe Manchin an offer he can’t refuse. According to NBC News, the party’s Senate leadership and committee chairs are working on “a new scaled-back version” of the Build Back Better Act — Joe Biden’s signature climate and social spending bill — aimed at satisfying all of the West Virginia Democrat’s long-standing demands.

For six months, the party leadership has tried to shift Manchin’s redlines instead of toeing them. Last July, the senator laid out his conditions for supporting the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda in a written document co-signed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Manchin promised to vote for the legislation if it authorized no more than $1.5 trillion in spending, dedicated “any revenue exceeding $1.5 trillion” to deficit reduction, and included “no additional handouts or transfer payments,” among other things.

Throughout September and October 2021, Manchin repeatedly emphasized that his demands on the deficit could not be satisfied through budget gimmicks. Specifically, he told Politico that he believed “starting new programs that shut off a few years from now is akin to making them permanent” since “Congress will never be able to shut them off.” During that same period, the senator reiterated his opposition to “handouts,” demanding that Biden’s refundable child tax credit include a work requirement.

House Democrats proceeded to pass a version of Build Back Better that (1) authorized $1.8 trillion in spending, (2) achieved deficit neutrality only because it phased out programs that Democrats insist will actually become permanent, and (3) included an extension of Biden’s child benefit that was free of any work requirement.

This was a worthwhile exercise in many respects. Over the course of his Senate career, Manchin has proven ideologically malleable, the substantive content of his centrism shifting with the political winds. If Democrats could establish $1.8 trillion as the mainstream Democratic position on Build Back Better’s top-line cost, perhaps they could get Manchin to come up from $1.5 trillion. Meanwhile, Manchin’s position on the child tax credit — that the government should condemn the nation’s most vulnerable children to poverty so as to punish their parents for being unemployed — is so morally odious and sociologically ignorant that it was well worth trying to force him off of it.

Nevertheless, when Manchin came out in opposition to the bill, no one should have been surprised. Yet many Democrats took his opposition as a shocking betrayal. From their perspective, a large majority of congressional Democrats had favored a $3.5 trillion package and had generously chosen to meet Manchin more than halfway. What’s more, they had allowed the West Virginian to veto the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), a core pillar of Biden’s climate agenda. And although Manchin had pointedly refused to endorse the House bill’s framework publicly, Biden had led congressional progressives to believe that the senator had done so privately during his efforts to end their blockade of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Much Democratic consternation was rooted in a denial of the fundamental asymmetry in negotiations between Manchin and his party’s mainstream. As the senator told his colleagues in October, he is comfortable with a $0 Build Back Better bill — which is to say, he would rather see the legislation die than add substantially to the deficit, as inflation is now his primary economic concern. Meanwhile, Manchin is all but invulnerable to progressive, grassroots pressure. He represents a state that backed Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 40 points. As of November, his approval rating among West Virginia voters was 60 percent, while Biden’s was 32 percent.

Put simply, in a negotiation between a group of lawmakers who all strongly prefer $1.5 trillion in new spending to $0 and one lawmaker who could live with either and is immune to their pressure, the latter gets to dictate terms.

Even after Manchin refused to back the House bill, the Biden administration refused to internalize this reality. In December, Manchin reportedly presented the White House with a $1.8 trillion proposal that included more than $500 billion in climate funding (enough to fund virtually all of Biden’s green agenda), prekindergarten, and a permanent expansion of Affordable Care Act subsidies, among other things. The administration rejected this offer because it did not include a one-year extension of the enhanced child tax credit. After that, negotiations between Manchin and the White House broke down, and the former went on Fox News to declare his opposition to Build Back Better.

In the months since, many in blue America have given up on passing Biden’s top legislative priority. As Politico reported Wednesday morning: “Some Democrats on the Hill say it’s time to cut their losses and move on.” But such fatalism is indefensible.

It is entirely possible that Manchin is acting in bad faith. As I’ve written, the most plausible theory for why the West Virginian’s vote is unwinnable is that he does not want Biden’s climate agenda to pass. Since the president proposed more social programs than $1.8 trillion can finance, almost every individual provision of Build Back Better is up for negotiation — except for its investment in the green transition. A spending bill that did not include hundreds of billions in climate funding would cease to be a version of Build Back Better. Given Manchin’s political and personal ties to the coal industry — whose decline would be accelerated by Build Back Better’s passage — it is conceivable that the senator’s myriad demands are mere pretexts for sabotage.

But there are many reasons to doubt this theory. First, if Manchin’s overriding priority was to maximize coal’s market share (by mendacious means, if necessary), then it would have been extremely weird for him to include $500 billion in climate funding in his December offer to the White House. I guess one could posit that Manchin presumed his proposal would be turned down and that offering it would therefore provide him with an alibi for blocking the broader bill. But that seems like an awfully elaborate scheme. If Manchin wants to oppose climate spending so as to defend the coal industry, why wouldn’t he just say so? West Virginia politicians do not generally go out of their way to conceal their efforts to aid Big Coal.

It is true that the precise details of Manchin’s climate proposal are unknown. But if the senator’s green spending departed wildly from Biden’s, the White House chose not to leak that fact, even as it derided Manchin’s offer for its deficient social provisions. Given that Manchin chairs the Senate Energy Committee, which has released a draft version of Build Back Better’s climate section that is broadly consistent with Biden’s vision, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Manchin really did offer to support the White House’s green agenda in December.

For another thing, Manchin co-authored two of the most significant pieces of climate legislation in American history. The Energy Act of 2020, written by Manchin and Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, included $35 billion for zero-emission energy-technology research and development (including wind, solar, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage); an extension of tax credits for wind and solar investment, which were expected to expire; funding for low-income families to reduce their energy bills (and consumption) through home weatherization; and a plan to gradually eliminate the use of climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons in air conditioners and refrigerators. Last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, meanwhile, allocated $65 billion for clean energy and electrical grids along with a $7.5 billion downpayment on a national network of electric vehicle charging stations.

Both of these measures were grossly inadequate to the scale of the climate crisis. And both included provisions friendly to fossil fuels. Nevertheless, each delivered historically large subsidies to Big Coal’s clean competitors. If Manchin’s overriding priority were to maximize coal’s market share, it would be odd for him to have championed those laws.

Finally, and most significantly, Manchin has recently signaled that he is interested in moving forward with Biden’s climate agenda. “The climate thing is one that we probably can come to an agreement much easier than anything else,” Manchin told reporters in early January. Last week, Manchin’s office leaked word that the senator wants to expand one of Build Back Better’s climate provisions: Whereas the current legislation establishes a six-year tax credit for nuclear energy production, Manchin wants it to create a ten-year one.

So at the very least, the theory that Manchin’s demands are alibis for doing Big Coal’s bidding isn’t obviously correct.

And if climate isn’t the stumbling block, it’s hard to see why Manchin wouldn’t support a version of Build Back Better that met all of his avowed demands. There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of Manchin’s support for universal prekindergarten. West Virginia already has a pre-K program, so Biden’s plan would merely enable Manchin’s state to offload some of its existing budget burdens onto Uncle Sam. Manchin has also been a consistent supporter of expanding the Affordable Care Act and unwinding much of the Trump tax cuts.

True, the Washington Post reported in early January that Manchin’s $1.8 trillion offer was no longer on the table. Yet even as administration officials complained that Manchin would not take yes for an answer, they tacitly admitted that the White House had not actually tried to accept the senator’s terms. As the Post wrote, “Senior Democrats say they do not believe Manchin would support his offer even if [my emphasis] the White House tried adopting it in full.”

Again, it’s possible that Manchin really is a bad-faith actor. He has shifted some of his positions over the course of negotiations. But as of this writing, Democrats have yet to try simply meeting the senator’s demands from last July even though a version of Build Back Better that was complaint with them would still do a lot of good.

As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has noted, if Democrats pursued only those revenue-raising measures that Manchin has personally endorsed, they could finance virtually all of Biden’s climate agenda, his Obamacare improvements, prekindergarten, $209 billion in funding for at-home eldercare, and reduce the deficit by $220 billion over a decade. Such legislation would meet or exceed all of Manchin’s stated demands.

According to NBC News, Schumer is quietly considering precisely this sort of deal: To “lure Manchin back to the table,” Senate Democrats are mulling “reserving a portion of the plan’s revenue for deficit reduction.” No Senate Democrats want to publicly endorse this act of surrender, however, until Manchin signs off on it. For his part, Biden signaled openness to such a bitter compromise Wednesday afternoon, when he told reporters that the enhanced child tax credit probably would not make it into the final version of Build Back Better.

There are stumbling blocks in the way of such a deal. Persuading progressives to swallow their child care program’s demise will be easier if dropping that measure enables a larger investment in prekindergarten than the House bill currently makes. But for that to be the case, any deficit reduction would likely need to derive from larger tax increases on the rich — and/or more savings from prescription drug negotiations — instead of cutbacks in the bill’s overall level of social spending. Manchin, for his part, has endorsed strong price controls on prescription drugs and raising the corporate tax rate. The obstacle to those provisions has been Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema.

But Sinema is more vulnerable to progressive pressure than Manchin is in that she represents a (light) blue state and will likely face a strong primary challenge in 2024. The Arizona senator has refused to abolish the filibuster in order to facilitate the passage of voting rights legislation. But in defying her party on that issue, she has had Manchin at her side and “Senate tradition” as her shield. Sinema may prove to be enough of a wild card to single-handedly kill Biden’s agenda in the name of preventing a tax hike on corporations. But it seems quite possible that if Democrats appease Manchin, Sinema will feel too isolated to maintain her intransigence.

In any case, giving Manchin what he wants is preferable to leaving Biden’s agenda for dead. Perhaps there is some other strategy that could credibly move Manchin without awarding him further substantive concessions. Given that caving to Manchin involves acquiescing to a large increase in America’s child poverty rate, such a gambit would surely be worth pursing. But the party’s quixotic effort to strong-arm the senator on the filibuster does not inspire confidence.

A version of Build Back Better that included nothing except for its climate provisions would be worth fighting for, let alone one that also made prekindergarten nearly universal. If the U.S. invests $500 billion into a green transition this year, it will likely hit its emissions target for 2030 and help catalyze cost reductions and innovations that will help developing countries industrialize sustainably. Before Democrats “cut their losses and move on” from averting catastrophic climate change, they should at least see if Manchin is willing to accept what he’s been asking for.

Make Manchin an Offer He (Theoretically) Can’t Refuse