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Democrats reluctantly coalesce around Manchin’s climate-less offer on Biden bill

Progressives like Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Ro Khanna of California said Democrats should take the wins they can get.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Committee Chair, gives remarks during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, at the U.S. Capitol, on July 19, 2022.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Committee Chair, gives remarks during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, at the U.S. Capitol, on July 19, 2022.Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders have decided to accept an offer by Sen. Joe Manchin and move forward on a slimmed-down bill with drug pricing and health insurance funding — leaving efforts on climate change for another day.

Progressive lawmakers are also indicating they're willing to go along, despite deep frustrations with the centrist West Virginia Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday that "Democrats are moving ahead with the provision to lower prescription drug prices" and a two-year extension of Affordable Care Act funding to avert sharp insurance premium hikes this fall.

"We are going to keep fighting on climate. It's very, very important. It's an existential threat to the globe," he said. "We're urging the administration to do things that it can do administratively, and we're going to look at everything that we can do."

The decision comes after Manchin shocked and angered many Democrats by saying he would not, at least in the near future, vote for a bill that included clean energy funding or tax increases — two provisions he said earlier this year should be part of a slimmer deal after rejecting the Build Back Better Act. Now, that smaller proposal has become even smaller.

For many Democrats, shelving the climate change provisions was a huge blow. But in the 50-50 Senate, with the party facing no hope of winning Republican support for a filibuster-proof package, the centrist Manchin's decisive vote leaves them with two options: Accept his narrow deal or let the entire package die.

Progressives are gradually coming around to taking the offer.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a co-author of the Green New Deal and one of the most outspoken voices in Congress on climate change, said Democrats should “take the wins” on drug pricing and health insurance funding.

“If there are any breakthroughs in climate, we can add it. But if not, we should move,” Markey said Tuesday.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the progressive caucus, told NBC News that Democrats should take Manchin’s deal.

“I agree 100 percent with Senator Markey. Take the wins,” he said. “We have to be pragmatic in making progress, step by step.”

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has prioritized passing climate change provisions, said the chamber should move forward on drug pricing immediately.

“With Americans getting mugged at the checkout counter right now, and there’s an opportunity to get them real relief on prescription drugs now — I want that done in this work period," he said, referring to the few weeks that remain before a month-long August recess.

“With respect to clean energy for America, I’m absolutely going to push for that in the future because it’s time to get America out of picking winners and losers, with respect to energy choices, and have a transformative policy," he added.

Still, there are obstacles for the narrow deal. The drug pricing policies will likely require sign-off from the Senate parliamentarian to ensure they comply the chamber’s arcane budget rules. There would be no room for defections in the Senate and little in the House, giving many Democrats a bitter pill to swallow.

The agreement that party leaders reached with Manchin empowers Medicare to negotiate prices with the pharmaceutical industry and imposes a $2,000 per-year cap on out of pocket costs for Medicare patients, among other provisions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., emphasized his opposition to the idea, telling reporters on Tuesday it would impose “socialist price controls” and move against the goal of a “healthy pharmaceutical industry.”

Manchin insisted that he hasn't abandoned talks on energy and climate change, saying he's too worried about inflation to pass a bill before the next round of inflation statistics come out next month.

"I haven’t walked away from anything, and inflation is my greatest concern," he told reporters on Monday. "Energy — something we have to have. And we can walk and chew gum, we can find a pathway forward and we’re in good conversation, good talks."

Other Democrats appear increasingly resigned to the fact that Manchin can singlehandedly dictate the fate of President Joe Biden's agenda. "Forget the half loaf. At this point a piece of toast is better than nothing," said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn.