Manchin Threatens To Derail Entire Democratic Agenda With Spending Squeamishness

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in an elevator near the Senate Subway on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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September 2, 2021 4:14 p.m.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has decided that spending $3.5 trillion on a reconciliation package slated to contain much of President Joe Biden’s agenda is too much, threatening to derail the Democratic agenda possibly for years. 

“I, for one, won’t support a $3.5 trillion bill, or anywhere near that level of additional spending, without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs,” he wrote in a Thursday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. 

“Instead of rushing to spend trillions on new government programs and additional stimulus funding, Congress should hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation,” he added, saying he is also uncomfortable adding to the national debt.

He made similar comments Wednesday to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, saying that he wants to “hit the pause button” due to “runaway inflation,” according to a Bloomberg report.

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Manchin’s squeamishness could tank not just the reconciliation package, which is expected to include historic and desperately needed climate change mitigation measures, but also the smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill. It could also end Democrats’ chance to meaningfully legislate for years. 

Since the beginning of work on the infrastructure plan, Democratic congressional leadership and President Joe Biden have kept the reconciliation bill and the bipartisan bill linked to keep both flanks of the party in line — both the moderates who may quail in the face of big spending on reconciliation, and progressives who dismiss the bipartisan deal as far too paltry and myopic to address the many crises consuming the country. As made clear in a recent showdown in the House when moderates threatened mutiny if they didn’t get an instant vote on the bipartisan deal before reconciliation is crafted, these bills are unlikely to pass independently of each other. 

Since holding the bipartisan deal hostage is the only leverage progressives have, Manchin is endangering both bills by rebelling against the one. 

If he engineers the downfall of both bills, he’ll likely be resigning President Joe Biden to a first term absent any more big legislative successes. The reconciliation bill is so important to Democrats because it’s their last guaranteed chance to pass legislation on a simple majority (again, Manchin, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, is ensuring that the filibuster lets Republicans veto everything else Democrats propose). 

Democrats are planning to include potentially transformational climate legislation, anti-poverty measures like an extended Child Tax Credit, critical pieces of the labor-friendly PRO Act and possibly even immigration reform. Essentially, they plan to stuff as much of Biden’s agenda into the vehicle as can squeak by the Senate parliamentarian, aware that little else of their priorities can garner the 10 Republican votes needed to defeat the filibuster. 

If Manchin sticks to his guns and demands that the reconciliation bill be shrunk — he says in the op-ed that he’s not just “posturing,” but doesn’t indicate what topline number he’d be okay with — some of those priorities will fall out of the package. 

His demand for a pause in legislating brings up another problem for Democrats, mainly on the House side. When moderates in the lower chamber staged their rebellion a couple of weeks ago, they extracted a promise from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that she’d bring the bipartisan bill to the floor for a vote on September 27. 

If Democratic staffers worked through recess at breakneck speed, maybe they could have the reconciliation package done by then, keeping the legislation intertwined. Not so if Manchin makes everyone wait to “provide more clarity on the trajectory of the pandemic” and to “allow us to determine whether inflation is transitory or not,” as he said in his op-ed. 

The progressive caucus in the House has promised to vote down the bipartisan deal if it comes to the floor before the Senate passes a reconciliation package.

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