How months of talks between Biden and Manchin over Build Back Better broke down

How months of talks between Biden and Manchin over Build Back Better broke down
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President Joe Biden was at home in Delaware Sunday when Sen. Joe Manchin appeared on Fox News to abruptly declare he could not support his sweeping social and climate plan. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible,” the West Virginia Democrat said, appearing remotely. “I can’t get there. This is a no.”

Biden, who learned of Manchin’s plans only minutes before the TV appearance, tried quickly to get the senator on the phone. But his attempts were unsuccessful.

Manchin’s move astonished and infuriated the President and his top advisers, people familiar with their reaction said, after having spent the past 12 months in talks with the senator — in Delaware, at the White House, on the phone and even aboard Manchin’s houseboat. In an equally surprising step, the White House torched Manchin afterward in a statement bristling with resentment that shattered the amity Biden had sought to cultivate.

Biden personally signed off on the blistering statement issued by press secretary Jen Psaki after Manchin’s announcement on Fox News, according to a source familiar with the matter. While staff drafted language addressing Manchin’s specific concerns — on inflation, climate provisions and how the plan was paid for — Biden specifically instructed them to add that if Manchin stood by his comments, he had violated his word to the President.

The President learned his chief negotiating partner was pulling the plug from White House aides, who did not hear the news directly from the senator but from a member of his staff roughly 30 minutes before he went on air.

As of Sunday night, the two still had not spoken, according to a senior administration official.

It was a sudden end to a promising run of dealmaking that stretched back weeks. Four days before Biden was set to depart for high-stakes summits in Europe this fall, he did something he had never done before as president and hasn’t done since: turn his home in Delaware into a venue for dealmaking.

With his entire domestic agenda teetering on the edge, Biden found himself that overcast Sunday morning haggling over breakfast and coffee with Manchin.

The men slogged through a discussion of top-line numbers and nitty-gritty details of a package Biden once hoped would define his early presidency. At one point, the President even walked the senator through his lakefront house to show him around.

The talks did not yield any major announcements at the time. But in Wilmington, Manchin did agree privately to one thing, according to the White House: he would support a framework of Biden’s sweeping social and climate plan, and work over the next months to finalize the details.

Eight Sundays later, it was over.

An unexpected bomb

Despite conversations last week that sent clear warning signs of Manchin’s concerns, White House officials firmly believed they’d at least have the opportunity in the coming weeks to try and address Manchin’s concerns and ideas.

“It obviously wasn’t going to be easy, but there was real policy work underway to see what we could bring to the table” to try and mollify Manchin, one official said Sunday.

Only five days earlier, Manchin had paid a secret visit to the White House to hand deliver a new framework proposal to Biden that had fueled at least some internal optimism that an agreement was possible. White House officials viewed it as a non-starter in its entirety, but believed it provided a potential map for how to thread the policy needle to meet Manchin’s red lines.

Biden himself viewed the coming weeks as a climb, but one that could end with an outcome, the official said. Yet even as senators left town for the holidays, some in the West Wing took note of the announcement late in the week that Manchin would be on Fox News Sunday.

Asked on Friday if time out of the spotlight would be helpful to the negotiations, one official said it was possible — but added, “Let’s see what Manchin says Sunday on Fox.”

What Manchin had to say was far more dramatic than anyone was expecting in the days prior. Manchin had only told his own staff Sunday morning of his decision.

A scramble ensued that included requests from the White House that Manchin talk directly by phone to Biden’s top negotiators. Had Manchin requested it, Biden almost certainly would have gotten on the phone with him, an official said.

But that request has not come, nor has a response from Manchin.

Now, people familiar with the matter describe a once-friendly relationship facing serious strain, and little confidence that trust between them can be fully restored.

‘A breach of his commitments’

Biden remained at home in Delaware after Manchin’s appearance, huddling with aides as they crafted a response. Just shy of three hours after Manchin dropped his Sunday show bomb, the White House unloaded the 714-word statement casting Manchin as both duplicitous and badly mistaken in his views.

The statement went directly at a senator who has been dealt — on Biden’s explicit orders — with respect that bordered on kid-glove treatment by White House officials all year. The statement all but called Manchin a liar, noting a “a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President.”

“Maybe Senator Manchin can explain to the millions of children who have been lifted out of poverty, in part due to the Child Tax Credit, why he wants to end a program that is helping achieve this milestone — we cannot,” it noted.

The statement referred twice to his comments being made on Fox — a subtle nod to a point of particular annoyance for some Biden advisers.

The statement was in Psaki’s name, not Biden’s, though officials made clear it never would have seen the light of day without the President’s explicit backing and support. One official said that given the tone of the statement, it made more sense to come from the press secretary, which kept Biden out of the direct fray. Officials believed the statement could increase pressure on Manchin to change his position.

Still, it was a dramatically different tone from two days earlier, when Psaki told told reporters flying aboard Air Force One that Biden and Manchin remained friends, and projected confidence in the viability of Build Back Better in the new year.

“He’s somebody who (the President) has had many candid and direct conversations with,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they always agree on everything, but that is not the bar that the President sets for his friendships or relationships with members of Congress.”

The statement also stood in contrast to the one issued by Biden just Thursday, when House progressives had urged him not to indicate publicly that there wasn’t an immediate path forward for Build Back Better. After several hours of back and forth, Biden conceded the bill was stalled for the moment, named Manchin three times and hinted at the rocky path ahead.

Manchin, who had been in contact with Biden’s top aides in the days prior, was furious with the statement, a person close to the White House said.

Manchin appeared to allude to just that when reporters on Capitol Hill asked if he agreed with the statement.

“That was his statement,” was all Manchin would say in response.

The two men had spent much of the preceding week — and, ultimately, the past year — in communication over the contours of Biden’s proposed legislation. They had developed what officials described as a warm relationship, even as Biden sometimes voiced frustration as the talks dragged on.

“Joe, at the end, has always been there. He’s always been with me,” Biden said at the end of September at another critical juncture for his domestic agenda.

White House officials on Sunday were privately optimistic that Manchin could eventually return to the table and strike a deal, though whether that was realistic remained unclear.

Manchin’s power in a 50-50 Senate

In meetings at the White House, Manchin and Biden often met in the Oval Office, sitting opposite each other in front of the fireplace where the President typically receives foreign dignitaries. Often before Manchin arrived, Biden received briefings from staff members involved in the negotiations, including National Economic Council director Brian Deese, senior adviser Steve Ricchetti, Domestic Policy Council director Susan Rice and chief of staff Ron Klain — who earlier this year visited Manchin on his houseboat.

Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest advisers who played a central role in clinching the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, had become a key liaison to the senator as negotiations reached their most critical stage.

The outsized attention Manchin received from the White House underscored the dealmaking — or breaking — role he holds in an evenly divided Senate. Biden had already shown a willingness to accede to many of Manchin’s requests, including reducing the overall package’s size from the originally proposed $3.5 trillion and scrapping a clean energy plan that had been a centerpiece of the President’s climate agenda.

Manchin relished the powerful position in which he found himself, even as it irked many other Democrats and supporters of the President’s agenda. Over the weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris faced tough questioning about Manchin’s ability to singlehandedly decide the fate of Biden’s governing agenda in an interview on Comedy Central with Charlamagne tha God.

“So, who is the real president of this country, is it Joe Manchin or Joe Biden?” he asked Harris.

“C’mon Charlamagne. C’mon, it’s Joe Biden,” Harris said to the late-night talk show host. “I can’t tell sometimes,” he retorted, before Harris cut him off.

Advisers said Biden long believed he could get to an agreement with Manchin, based primarily on their many discussions over the course of the year — not just on policy but on their overall shared goals of proving the government can still deliver. While they had different perspectives on the overall role of government, there was a sense that Manchin shared Biden’s view of the critical moment for the country — an “inflection point” in history Biden often references publicly.

Given the stakes, and Manchin’s stated desire for Biden to succeed, there remained a consistent view that eventually he’d get there on the centerpiece of Biden’s agenda. What, exactly, that would look like policy-wise remained a persistent mystery.

The two have a relationship dating back a decade, when then-Vice President Biden was the chief emissary from the Obama White House to the moderate West Virginian. “(Biden) was the only one who called that mattered,” a person familiar with the dynamic between Manchin and Biden said, recalling the early days of the relationship between the senator and the former vice president.

Last week, the two men spoke at regular intervals on the phone and in person. After a highly anticipated telephone conversation on Monday, spokespeople for the White House and Manchin described the talks as “constructive” and “productive” — but wouldn’t provide much more detail.

Despite the public confidence, multiple sources familiar with the conversations said the phone calls between Biden and Manchin weren’t producing any significant headway toward a resolution. During the conversations, Manchin made clear his public objections to the size and structure of both the overall package and specific pieces were real, and signaled they would need to be addressed to secure his support.

“Mr. President, I can’t get there,” Manchin said during one recent conversation, according to a person familiar with the readout. Biden told him, “I need you, Joe.”

Manchin drew particular attention to the structure of an expanded child tax credit, viewed by the White House as a cornerstone achievement of Biden’s first year in office that Democrats have pushed to extend for another year.

Manchin issued a new demand the tax cut be extended for 10 years — a step he said would reflect the true nature of the plan, arguing Democrats were hiding the costs of the bill by relying on temporary programs that will be extended year after year. Yet that would have consumed the price tag of Biden’s bill, and was ultimately a non-starter.

Last-ditch efforts

In a previously unannounced meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Manchin provided the President a written framework that was similar in size to the plan Biden had unveiled in October, and included many of the same measures. While administration officials felt the plan was missing some of the President’s top priorities, officials felt confident a deal could ultimately be reached.

“We believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all,” Psaki said.

That evening, Biden sounded a bullish note when he was speaking to a group of Democratic supporters at a holiday reception at a hotel near the White House.

“We won as a unified Democratic Party — more unified than ever,” he said to applause. “Now we look at 2022. I want to tell my Republican friends: Get ready, pal. You’re going in for a problem.”

Now, it is Biden facing problems of party unity. His second year in office will be defined by Democrats’ attempts to retain control of Congress in midterm elections.

Many of Biden’s domestic priorities were tied up in the bill Manchin rejected on Sunday. He has framed his presidency around an ability to deliver ambitious change for lower and middle-income Americans. But those pledges now face an uncertain future as Democrats regroup on how to advance the bill’s provisions, many of which polls show are overwhelming popular among voters.

Despite what appeared to be outbreak of an all-out war with the most critical senator to Biden’s legislative agenda, a White House official said work was already under way to see if an alternative approach or proposal could work for Manchin.

An option that was considered earlier in the process was to include fewer new programs for a longer duration, something that might address a major component of Manchin’s concerns.

But it’s also clear that Biden’s grandest ambitions on his cornerstone domestic policy legislation — already cut in half by Manchin over the last seven months — have collapsed upon themselves. The battle now will be for what the White House and Democrats can salvage from the wreckage.

The-CNN-Wire
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