At last night’s State of the Union address, President Biden was careful about how he discussed the legislation formerly known as Build Back Better. Aware that one of his audience members, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, had emphatically killed the bill in December because deficits! And inflation!, Biden touted the deficit-reducing and inflation-taming features of his various proposals. Manchin, bless his heart, quickly came back with a public offer of a package derived from BBB that he might be able to accept, as Politico reports:
Manchin said that if Democrats want to cut a deal on a party-line bill using the budget process to circumvent a Republican filibuster, they need to start with prescription drug savings and tax reform. He envisions whatever revenue they can wring out of that as split evenly between reducing the federal deficit and inflation, on the one hand, and enacting new climate and social programs, on the other — “to the point where it’s sustainable.”
“If you do that, the revenue producing [measures] would be taxes and drugs. The spending is going to be climate,” Manchin said.
As it happens, caps on prescription-drug costs (for both consumers and the federal government) and higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy were probably the two most popular features of the package we do not speak of (more formally, the FY 2022 Budget Reconciliation Act). Both topics got big applause at the SOTU address last night. More to the point, Manchin is offering to use half the savings generated from these revenue measures to fund some of the climate-change provisions that were included in BBB. It’s not as good as the offer the West Virginian made in December (which included universal pre-K and an Obamacare expansion), presumably because he’s more alarmed by the deficit at this point. But it’s a whole lot better than nothing, which is what Democrats have right now. At a minimum, Biden and Chuck Schumer should be on the horn with Manchin to reopen talks on a deal.
There is, unfortunately, a problem, beyond the possibility that some progressives in Congress might contemptuously reject further negotiations with Manchin as humiliating and inadequate in scope. There is another Democratic senator who never signed onto BBB, and whose objections were mostly focused on plans to roll back the Trump tax cuts and hike rates on a swath of rich individuals and corporations — precisely the sort of provisions to which Manchin has again opened the door.
Manchin’s offer, then, doesn’t amount to much unless Kyrsten Sinema makes a corresponding gesture indicating that she, too, is willing to sit down and negotiate without categorical demands that conflict with his. If these two senators go back to alternating as bad cop and worse cop in talks with their Democratic counterparts at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s not much point in talking at all. Everyone involved should lay their cards on the table for real this time.
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