First published on Sun 19 Dec 2021 09.24 EST
The West Virginia senator Joe Manchin dealt a huge blow to Joe Biden on Sunday, saying “no” to the $1.75tn Build Back Better domestic spending plan. The White House issued a stinging rebuke in return, stoking a bitter war of words in a party sharply divided between moderates and progressives.
The White House accused Manchin of going back on his word.
“Senator Manchin’s comments this morning on Fox are at odds with his discussions this week with the president, with White House staff and with his own public utterances,” Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said in a statement.
Adding to angry accusations of betrayal from leading progressives including Senator Bernie Sanders, Psaki said: “Weeks ago, Senator Manchin committed to the president, at his home in Wilmington, to support the Build Back Better framework that the president then announced. Senator Manchin pledged repeatedly to negotiate on finalising that framework ‘in good faith’.
Citing work by Manchin on the proposed bill this week, Psaki said: “Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground.
“If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and [his] colleagues in the House and Senate.”
Biden and Democrats said this week they would delay the bill until next year but the president vowed it would pass and said he would continue talking to Manchin.
But on Sunday Manchin used an interview with Fox News Sunday to announce his withdrawal from such talks – a hugely provocative move in a party in which he and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another centrist, have held up Biden’s agenda to huge progressive frustration.
With the Senate split 50-50 and Republicans unanimously against, Manchin’s opposition means Build Back Better is all but dead in the water.
Citing the cost of the plan and economic worries including inflation, the national debt and the Omicron coronavirus variant, Manchin said: “I’ve always said this … if I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it.”
“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.”
The host, Bret Baier, seemed surprised.
“You’re done?” he asked. “This is a no?”
Manchin said: “This is a no on this piece of legislation. I have tried everything I know to do.”
Manchin also issued a lengthy statement in which he cast the US debt as a spectre haunting all other concerns, domestic and foreign.
“For five and a half months,” he said, “I have worked as diligently as possible, meeting with President Biden, [Senate] majority leader [Chuck] Schumer, [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and my colleagues on every end of the political spectrum to determine the best path forward despite my serious reservations.
“I have made my concerns clear through public statements, op-eds and private conversations. My concerns have only increased as the pandemic surges, inflation rises and geopolitical uncertainty increases.
“… Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation.”
Manchin cited a report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office which said that if the bill’s spending increases and tax cuts became permanent, $3tn would be added to its cost. Democrats criticised the report, which Republicans requested.
Psaki rejected each claim in Manchin’s statement, and said: “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.”
On CNN’s State of the Union, Sanders listed Build Back Better provisions including investment to combat the climate crisis and improve health and social care.
“I’ve been to West Virginia,” he said. “And it’s a great state, beautiful, but it is a state that is struggling.
“[Manchin] is going to have to tell the people of West Virginia why he’s rejecting what the scientists, the world is telling us, that we have to act boldly and transform our energy system to protect future generations from the devastation of climate change.
“… I hope that we will bring a strong bill to the floor of the Senate and that Joe Manchin should explain to the people of West Virginia why he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the powerful special interests.
“… If he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia in America, let him stand up and tell the whole world.”
Analysts would counter that Manchin is the only Democrat in major office in a state which voted solidly for Donald Trump, cuts his cloth accordingly and could easily switch allegiance, putting the Senate back in Republican hands.
In his statement, Manchin echoed Republican claims that Build Back Better is “socialist” in intent, saying: “My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society.”
Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, promised to make Manchin’s stance an election issue, saying: “I think … that right up to the 2022 election [we ask]: ‘Which party is prepared to do the right thing for the elderly, for the children?’
“By the way, we talk about kids, I want everybody out there to know if Manchin votes no, those $300 tax credits that have gone a long way to reducing childhood poverty in America? They’re gone. That’s all. We cut childhood poverty by 40%, an extraordinary accomplishment. Manchin doesn’t want to do that.
“Tell that to the struggling families of West Virginia.”
In the 50-50 Senate, Manchin has gained huge power. He voted for coronavirus relief and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, big-ticket spending items. But he has opposed reform to the filibuster, the rule that requires a supermajority for most legislation, even in answer to Republican moves to restrict voting among Democrats.
The infrastructure bill was “decoupled” from Build Back Better to ensure passage through the Senate. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, one of six House progressives who voted no on infrastructure despite assurances from Biden that he would get all senators on board for Build Back Better, refused to blame the president for Sunday’s disaster.
“My lack and deficit of trust was about Senator Manchin,” she told CNN. “He’s continued to move the goalposts. He has never negotiated in good faith, and he is obstructing the president’s agenda, 85% of which is still left on the table. And in obstructing the president’s agenda, he is obstructing the people’s agenda.”
Pressley was asked if Build Back Better might be split into smaller bills, to attract moderate Republicans.
She said: “I remain focused on keeping the pressure on Senator Manchin, the White House using the full weight of this presidency to lean on this senator to show solidarity with this Democratic party and with the American people and to stop obstructing the president’s agenda, which is the people’s agenda.
“This is a mammoth bill to address. Let’s get it done.”