‘A recipe for absolute destruction’: Democrats scramble to avoid electoral blowback after Manchin halts Biden agenda

‘A recipe for absolute destruction’: Democrats scramble to avoid electoral blowback after Manchin halts Biden agenda
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It’s exactly the scenario Democrats had worked for months to avoid — but now find themselves confronting.

Vulnerable members were forced to cast a tough vote in an already daunting election year. And now, they are left with nothing to show for it.

With Sen. Joe Manchin effectively wielding a veto over President Joe Biden’s agenda, House Democrats are now fuming at the prospects that their vote last month to pass the Build Back Better bill will be all for naught, having made scores of promises to voters only to have them all go unfulfilled.

And Democrats in difficult races are calling on Manchin to return to the negotiating table and for their party’s leaders to recalibrate their strategy to find some way to pass individual pieces of the $1.75 trillion proposal, even though doing that would require sign off from Manchin and would force them to replay the party infighting that has dogged Biden in his first year in office.

“I’m obviously upset — pissed off about what happened,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat who represents a New Jersey swing district. “We certainly are not going to win an election spending the next year bemoaning the fact that Joe Manchin didn’t do Build Back Better in December. We win by sprinting out of the starting gate in January.”

“I think it’s imperative that Democrats pass a measure to support children and families and the economic wellbeing of the American middle class and to take steps to address climate change,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat. “If we do nothing, it would be a terrible reflection on Democrats.”

And Phillips said his party needs to stop squabbling and instead coalesce around a new strategy to find consensus on some pieces of the legislation.

“If we continue to point fingers at one another, and not recalibrate, that’s a recipe for absolute destruction,” he said.

After the talks collapsed and led to a bitter round of finger-pointing, Manchin and Biden tried to cool tensions. They spoke by phone Sunday night and discussed reengaging on the matter in the new year.

Yet getting a scaled-back plan through Congress is hardly a guarantee — especially with the trust deficit at rock bottom.

“He simply can’t be trusted to be a man of his word,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said of Manchin.

There are clear signs that the party is hardly on the same page about how to move ahead. In a phone call Monday, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she conveyed her frustration directly to the senator — and she’s now calling on Biden to act administratively instead.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he will still put the $1.75 trillion bill on the floor in January, forcing Manchin to officially vote no to block the measure. It will take weeks to even get to that point to hold the first procedural vote, which is bound to fail.

And Manchin is showing little interest in pushing through a narrower bill, arguing that Democrats should instead take their time and go through the committee process, something that could take months and ultimately would require the backing of 10 Republicans if they opt to go through the normal legislative order, as the moderate Democrat has been demanding.

All of which means Democrats could be faced with many more weeks of legislative squabbling and no bill to show for it.

“After months of negotiations, one Democratic US senator has now summarily walked away from productive negotiations,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat facing a difficult race. “That is unacceptable.”

Democrats believe there’s still time to reverse voter sentiment. And they plan to campaign heavily on approval of the sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure law — and the nearly $2 trillion in Covid relief package enacted in the spring — despite the failure to approve the Build Back Better measure.

“Voters make up their minds starting next summer,” Malinowski said, calling on Congress to also approve a bill aimed improving US competitiveness with China. “Infrastructure is a huge deal in New Jersey. There’s going to be so much money coming into my district from the infrastructure bill and what has already come via Covid relief.”

Of the larger package, the congressman added: “We haven’t not gotten it done yet.”

Déjà vu from 2009

Yet the situation Democrats are in now is emblematic of the scenario that Speaker Nancy Pelosi found herself in 12 years ago.

Bolstered by a huge majority in 2009, Pelosi pushed through a major bill aimed at controlling greenhouse gas emissions — something that was furiously opposed by the fossil-fuel industry, Republicans and moderate Democrats — and was narrowly approved despite 44 Democrats who voted against it. The bill was later ignored by the Senate, drawing the ire of House Democrats who had to cast a tough vote on a bill that went nowhere.

They lost the House in 2010, in an election where Democrats encountered backlash for their push to expand social programs and enact the Affordable Care Act.

This year, Pelosi tried to avoid a similar scenario — and she had promised for weeks that House Democrats would only approve a bill that had been agreed to by all 50 Democratic senators. With an agreement elusive after months of talks, the California Democrat reversed course and scheduled a vote on the House Democrats’ version of the bill last month. Only one Democrat, Jared Golden of Maine, voted against it.

Asked if the biggest hurdles were in “the rearview mirror” during a press conference last month, following the House’s passage of the bill, Pelosi told reporters: “Yes.”

She later added: “It’s really cause for celebration for us now. And we’re not getting bogged down in long speeches or (are) people’s careers over, what happens if this doesn’t happen. What we’re talking about is what has happened.”

Yet if the bill doesn’t become law, Democrats will have to confront the promises they made to their voters that didn’t pan out.

For Democrats in high-tax cities and states, primarily in the Northeast and on the West Coast, they had promised to relieve their constituents from getting hit with huge levies because of the limits Republicans placed on state and local tax deductions in their 2017 tax law. But with the collapse of Build Back Better, getting a deal to pass a SALT plan seems grim at best.

“Having passed SALT relief through the House floor four times, I remain as committed as ever to finding a path through the Senate for this and other New Jersey priorities,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat from New Jersey who faces a potentially tough road to reelection.

Democrats already face bleak prospects of holding onto their razor-thin House majority, especially as retirements continue to climb — with 22 Democrats already publicly announcing they plan to step aside, compared to 11 Republicans. Plus with the challenges of redistricting, Biden’s sagging poll numbers and the difficulties a President’s party typically faces in his first midterm, the environment facing Democrats is dire.

In the Senate, where the battle for the majority could go either way, vulnerable Democrats had been hoping to campaign on the bill’s passage as well.

“I’m more about getting it done right than getting it done on some schedule,” Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat facing reelection next year, said when asked last week about the slipping timetable.

But Kelly also acknowledged the problems facing families in his state if the child tax credit expires at year’s end. “That’s not ideal.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat facing a potentially tough reelection in New Hampshire, said she wants to find consensus on the social safety net package, citing “lowering costs by taking on Big Pharma, providing tax cuts for families and acting on climate change.”

Yet without Manchin’s support, and with steadfast GOP opposition, none of those initiatives will become law.

Manchin’s criticism of the bill spans the gamut — the price tag, the size of the plan, the temporary programs and scope of the bill — and he says he wants work requirements set around the child tax credit, in particular.

“We’ve been way far apart philosophically,” Manchin said on West Virginia Radio on Monday.

There’s still some hope among his colleagues that he will come around.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the most senior Democrat in the chamber, said Monday: “There is a lot in the bill that I hope we can still get through.”

Asked what it would mean for his party’s prospects in next year’s midterms if they can’t get it approved, Leahy, who is retiring, quipped: “I probably won’t be elected.”

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