Biden Agenda Sinks Under its Own Ambitions

A key Democrat’s decision to pull support from the president’s sprawling climate and social agenda is rooted in the scope of the bill.,

A key Democrat’s decision to pull support from the president’s sprawling climate and social agenda is rooted in the scope of the bill.

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s plan to stuff nearly every long-held Democratic priority into his signature domestic policy bill has buckled under the weight of its ambitions, with the final senator needed to push it over the finish line balking at its scope, its cost and its clever financing.

For months, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has warned the president and congressional leaders that he was uncomfortable with the breadth of what had become a $2.2 trillion bill to fight climate change, continue monthly checks to parents, establish universal prekindergarten and invest in a wide range of spending and tax cuts targeting child care, affordable housing, home health care and more.

Over the past week, he has insisted that the bill shrink to fit the $1.75 trillion framework that Mr. Biden announced this fall, and that — crucially — the legislation not use budget gimmicks to artificially shrink the bill’s impact on the federal budget deficit. Mr. Manchin said he feared the bill could further fuel rapid inflation and saddle future generations with debt.

On Sunday, Mr. Manchin dealt Mr. Biden’s current ambitions a final blow. “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I can’t get there.”

In a statement issued shortly after that interview, Mr. Manchin said he could not move ahead with what he called “this mammoth piece of legislation.”

“I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight,” he said.

White House officials, who along with party leaders have spent weeks trying to bring Mr. Manchin to a place of comfort with Mr. Biden’s bill, did not offer an immediate reaction.

Republicans celebrated Mr. Manchin’s statement as evidence that the bill, which Democrats were attempting to pass along party lines, was bad policy that even their own party could not get behind.

But Mr. Manchin has left a path forward, albeit not the one that Mr. Biden initially set out to travel. Some Democrats and White House officials believe there is still a chance to recast the bill to suit Mr. Manchin’s demands, and to possibly pass it in the first months of next year.

Such an effort would start with responding to the concerns Mr. Manchin has long expressed, including dropping some spending efforts in order to focus on a smaller list of programs that would last a full decade and be paid for largely by raising taxes on high earners and large corporations.

That would force the White House to make difficult choices about which party priorities to leave on the cutting room floor — a decision that would undoubtedly anger progressive Democratic lawmakers and many of those who voted for Mr. Biden, who ran on much of the agenda contained in what is commonly called the Build Back Better bill.

Mr. Biden began the year with a $4 trillion agenda to overhaul the government’s role in the economy, fight climate change and invest in America’s children. He sliced off some of it for a bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law this fall, and has whittled down the rest in negotiations with moderates and progressives in his party, which controls the House and Senate by exceedingly narrow margins.

This fall the president believed he had found the sweet spot. Shortly before traveling to meet with world leaders in Rome and attend a global climate summit in Scotland, he announced a framework that he said would be able to get House majority support and 50 votes, the bare minimum to pass using a parliamentary process called budget reconciliation, in the Senate.

As they scaled back the bill, Democratic leaders had essentially two choices. They could focus on a few programs, like tax credits for climate change, an expanded benefit for parents that is meant to fight child poverty and making pre-K free for 3- and 4-year-olds across the country. Or they could pack as many programs as possible into the bill, setting some of them to expire after as little as a year in order to avoid ballooning the budget deficit, and hope that lawmakers would extend them in the future.

Leaders chose the “pack-it-in” strategy, in part because so many interest groups in their coalition, like environmentalists, early childhood advocates and labor unions, had competing priorities for the legislation. Budget hawks like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and centrist Democratic groups like the Progressive Policy Institute urged a more targeted approach: fewer programs, but made permanent.

Mr. Manchin, who is perhaps the most prominent deficit hawk left in the Democratic Party, worried that temporary spending would become permanent without offsets, adding to the debt. Republicans stoked his fears by asking the Congressional Budget Office to analyze an imaginary Build Back Better bill in which every program was permanent — and, not surprisingly, it showed ballooning deficits as a result.

White House officials pushed back hard on those projections, insisting that Mr. Biden would not extend any programs without offsets. But Mr. Manchin appears to have been unmoved. That has left the president with only one route left if he hopes to win over the final holdout vote: Jettison some spending and make the rest permanent.

It is not clear which programs Mr. Biden would favor in that situation, though White House officials have long insisted that the bill must include robust action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Congressional Democrats have also prioritized extending the expanded child tax credit, created by the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Mr. Biden signed in March, though the credit would likely need to be modified in order to avoid consuming most of the bill with its cost. Other groups have urged Mr. Biden to focus largely on efforts to help children, like prekindergarten.

Such a prioritization would bring risks of its own. Interest groups could decline to back the bill. Progressive lawmakers could threaten to vote against it. Those are risks the White House was not willing to navigate earlier this year as they crafted the bill. Mr. Manchin is forcing the administration to confront them now.

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