“Let me ask you a question, Chuck,” Obama said in an Oval Office meeting he recounted in his 2020 memoir. “Are there any changes — any at all — that would get us your vote?”
“I guess not, Mr. President,” Grassley replied, concluding negotiations.
Is Sen. Joe Manchin now reprising Grassley’s role on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan? If so — if nothing can ultimately get the West Virginia Democrat to “yes” — then more wheedling represents a waste of time. The legislation cannot pass without him.
But the White House and party leaders, believing they cannot afford to fail, maintain hope that Manchin’s vote can be won. That means exploring ways to reshape Biden’s plan to meet the senator’s objections.
In theory, that shouldn’t be so hard.
Like the President, Manchin agrees an acceptable package could spend $1.75 trillion over 10 years. Before his bombshell pre-Christmas announcement of opposition to the House-passed version of the massive tax and spending bill that would expand the nation’s social safety net, he had handed Biden a $1.8 trillion version.
That’s roughly half the President’s original proposal, but other congressional Democrats have made clear they can accept that reduction. The challenge is determining how to spend it.
As they whittled the price tag last year, House Democrats decided against culling many programs from Build Back Better. Instead, they financed them for only part of the 10-year span used in budget legislation, figuring a later Congress wouldn’t let the money run out.
Manchin complains that “gimmick” obscures the plan’s true long-term cost. He’d rather discard some proposals and fully fund those that remain.
That would inflict pain on Democratic union and social service constituencies that yearn for more money. Yet $1.75 trillion could still finance major priorities Democrats appear to agree on.
Championing his coal-producing state, Manchin slams as unduly punitive some Build Back Better proposals to ameliorate climate change. But he insists he supports most of the bill’s climate provisions. Overall, they cost $550 billion.
Manchin also backs new subsidies to help parents obtain child care and prekindergarten education for 3- and 4-year-olds. Permanent funding for those parts of Build Back Better, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, takes $752 billion.
Nor has Manchin objected to more financial help for Americans seeking health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (which Congress finally enacted in March 2010 without Grassley’s support). Permanent funding for those Build Back Better provisions, CBO says, would cost $428 billion.
A bill with those elements — on climate change, child care, prekindergarten and Obamacare — would represent a major advance for Democratic priorities. And the cumulative $1.73 trillion cost would fit Manchin’s compromise budget.
Of course, that list omits hundreds of billions’ worth of other Biden proposals, including money to expand the housing supply, raise home health care workers’ pay, add hearing benefits under Medicare and augment the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults.
More politically precarious, it also omits the Build Back Better provision many Democrats value most: an expanded Child Tax Credit that analysts say reduces childhood poverty by 40%. Manchin says too much of the money — more than $1 trillion over 10 years if funded permanently — would be squandered by undeserving recipients.
Yet just a tiny fraction of that investment would deliver much of the benefit Democrats seek.
For $50 billion over 10 years, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects, Congress could cut child poverty 20% without even increasing the maximum Child Tax Credit that this administration inherited from President Donald Trump. The reduction would come from making the pre-Biden credit “fully refundable” — available even to parents who don’t earn enough to generate federal income tax liabilities.
That’s something Manchin does oppose, insisting it gives some parents without jobs money to spend on drugs rather than their children. But if fellow Democrats could persuade him to compromise, adding Child Tax Credit refundability would partially address their priority while leaving the cost of a revised Biden plan below $1.8 trillion.
Manchin also fears Build Back Better spending would expand the budget deficit and exacerbate inflation. But deficit hawks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget say Biden has specified more than $2 trillion in bona fide financing sources, while economists in both parties envision the bill having a negligible inflationary impact.
In other words, a hypothetical package along these lines would seem to meet Manchin’s concerns. The question is whether his stated objections can be taken at face value.
In the 2020 election, Trump defeated Biden in West Virginia by 39 percentage points — a larger margin than anywhere except Wyoming. With a coal-loving constituency like that, perhaps Manchin — like Grassley on Obama’s health care plan — simply cannot bring himself to push Biden’s economic and climate agenda over the finish line.
That did not, however, stop him from joining the party-line vote to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last March. The next few weeks will tell whether the White House and Democratic leaders can make it happen again.