Don’t Count Out Manchin’s Vote Just Yet
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Senate finished up for the year without any action on the big Democratic climate/health care/child care/family support/etc. bill. The plan suffered another big hit Sunday when Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, declared he was simply against it, leaving only 49 remaining votes in the Senate. In response, the White House put out an angry statement (attributed to Press Secretary Jen Psaki) lashing out at Manchin. Other Democratic politicians and party actors directed even more brutal comments at him.
Many pundits did the math and declared the bill dead. Well … there’s dead and there’s dead, and my guess is what the Democrats call “Build Back Better” isn’t all that dead. Yet.
The bottom line is what it’s always been: If Manchin ultimately wants a bill, it’s fairly certain that everything else will fall in place. Even the most liberal Democrats in Congress will ultimately prefer half a bill, or even a 10th of a bill, over nothing if it’s clear those are the only choices. It’s not as if Manchin is insisting on including lots of stuff Senator Bernie Sanders doesn’t want, which would make it a harder dilemma. Instead, it’s just a question — assuming Manchin eventually returns to the bargaining table — of how many of the things Sanders and others want that they’ll eventually get. Which is also, no matter how frustrated other Democrats may be, why Manchin really does have an enormous amount of leverage.
To be sure: Some of this frustration is misplaced. It’s certainly not the case, as some have suggested, that one senator is defeating what all the others want. Manchin is only one of 51 “no” votes on the House’s version of the Build Back Better proposal. Democrats are trying to enact a very ambitious agenda with tiny congressional majorities; it shouldn’t surprise anyone if that turns out to be hard to do. I’ve seen some Democrats also argue that Senate malapportionment is at fault. It’s true that the 50 Democratic senators represent a lot more people than the 50 Republican senators do, and that’s hard to justify. Still, those are the rules of the game, and Democrats have had plenty of majorities over the past 20 years. Besides, their House majority is very narrow and that’s mostly because they just didn’t get the votes, not because of district lines.
It’s not really clear what Manchin’s goals are. Suppose, however, that he wants to eventually support a bill. Along the way, it wouldn’t be surprising if he also wanted to differentiate himself as much as possible from the other 49 senators he’d eventually be voting with. If that’s the case, he might see the attacks from liberals as a necessary condition for his eventual “yes” vote. If that’s the case, then Sunday was, perversely, a step toward passage.
What of his comments about budget gimmickry? Manchin’s complaint is that the bill phases out some of its benefits within a 10-year window, even though most Democrats wants them to be permanent. He’s wrong that doing so is a gimmick to make the bill “score” as if it was deficit-neutral when in fact, as he and the Republicans claim, it would really drive up the deficit; there’s no reason to assume that future Democrats, having paid for the benefits contained in this legislation, would fail to pay for them in the future. But he’s not wrong that the phase-outs are essentially gimmickry with regard to the size of the bill. That is, Democrats certainly do intend (for example) to extend the child-care tax credit permanently, and pretending otherwise to meet Manchin’s 10-year spending cap is mostly just juggling numbers, not making real cuts in the original proposal.
Which leaves Democrats a way back in. They’ve resisted choosing among the various items placed in the bill. Perhaps Manchin’s “no” on Sunday can be read as an ultimatum: Choose, or it’s over. That’s how some observers are reading it — and by Sunday afternoon, it appeared that some Democrats were responding to that reading of Manchin’s comments by selecting fewer things to fund but funding them for the full 10-year budget window.
Which really just gets us back to where we started: The bottom line is whether Manchin wants to get to yes or not, and none of us really has any idea what the answer is. It still seems to me that the bill’s proponents can take some comfort in the fact that Manchin has engaged in this for months, and it’s hard to see why he’d do so unless he had a potential agreement in mind. That said: Another thing to remember about Manchin is that while he’s had a reputation for being a serious senator, there’s no way he could’ve been fully prepared to be the pivotal vote on so many complex policy questions. In other words? To some extent he’s surely, and understandably, making it up as he goes along.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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