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Democrats see fresh hope for Biden's stalled agenda, eyeing Manchin's vote

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are narrowing the scope of the bill and rebranding it as an effort to combat inflation and reduce the deficit.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., attends a news conference about a bill to ban Russian energy imports on March 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at a news conference about a bill to ban Russian energy imports Thursday on Capitol Hill.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

WASHINGTON — Democrats have begun to pick up the pieces of President Joe Biden’s stalled domestic agenda, working in concert with the White House to rebrand it as a push to cut costs for families and zero in on a package that can win the decisive vote of Sen. Joe Manchin, the mutinous West Virginia centrist.

Just don’t call it “Build Back Better” — or present it as a bill to transform America. Those frames have been jettisoned, a tacit admission by Democratic leaders that they had alienated Manchin.

In a new letter to colleagues Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer offered some hints about what could be included in a revised package that Democrats can pass without GOP support.

“In reconciliation, Senate Democrats have introduced additional legislative proposals to lower the rising cost of energy, prescription drugs and health care, and the costs of raising a family,” he wrote, describing it as a push to fight “rising costs.”

In his State of the Union address last week, Biden highlighted a variety of provisions that Manchin told NBC News last month he supports — including prescription drug savings through Medicare negotiations, clean energy money and making health insurance funding permanent. And Biden called for raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help “lower the deficit,” a Manchin priority.

“Get your financial house in order. There’s only one thing all Democrats voted — we voted against the 2017 Republican tax cuts. We thought they were weighted unfairly,” Manchin said Sunday in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “If you have one thing that you’re all united on, fix it.”

He added that there were “no formal talks going on.”

Last week, Manchin further specified his demands on how the savings should be used in a new filibuster-proof bill.

“Half of that money should be dedicated to fighting inflation and reducing the deficit,” he told reporters. “The other half you can pick for a 10-year program, whatever you think is the highest priority. Right now, it seems to be the environment.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a moderate, said he has begun to work on how to allocate some of the deficit savings.

“I’ve got some very specific ideas on how we could dedicate some of the revenues raised, for example, to extending the life of Medicare,” he said. “There’s some $30 trillion in debt — it’s not sustainable.”

Schumer, notably, said in his letter that Senate committees will “hold new hearings and mark-ups on Democrats’ cost-cutting proposals” in March and April, starting with a Finance Committee hearing next week on slashing prescription drug costs. It would satisfy another Manchin demand: to put the policies through committee and let Republicans have their say.

The recent developments have made Democrats more optimistic. And the stakes are high for Biden's legacy.

“It looks like there’s been some movements with Sen. Manchin — that’s good. I can tell you, our caucus is ready to move a reconciliation bill,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in an interview, adding that Democrats will be ready to hit the gas once Congress finishes funding the government and sending aid to Ukraine as it defends itself against an invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s not going to be any surprises on what is included. The surprises will be on what’s not included. So let’s do it,” Cardin said. “There’s, to me, nothing sacrosanct. I want to get as much of it done as I possibly can, and then look for other avenues to get the rest of it done.”

Obstacles remain. Many Democrats have yet to accept the exclusion of cherished programs that are unlikely to make it in the bill — including the $250-$300 monthly child tax credit payment, paid leave guarantees and enhanced Medicare benefits. Those programs have nearly unanimous support among Democrats, and axing them from the package could spark pushback. As the prior negotiation indicated, Schumer doesn’t like to be the bearer of bad news.

Some of the tax increases Manchin favors on corporations and upper earners could run into opposition from the centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who continues to oppose rate hikes.

"There are many ways to pay for such ideas that do not include tax rate increases that hurt small businesses and our economic competitiveness," a Sinema spokesperson told NBC News.

The House-passed $1.7 trillion bill has been rejected by Manchin because it sets programs to expire to lower the sticker price, which he has dubbed a gimmick. To win his vote, any new bill would likely require new programs to be permanently funded and for a big chunk of savings to be put to the deficit. It’s a tall order, particularly for House progressives who remain angry at Manchin’s opposition to a bill they say already includes major sacrifices on their part.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said Biden’s move to reframe the package in the State of the Union was the right move. He sounded bullish on getting the votes to pass roughly half-a-trillion dollars in clean energy and climate change funding, which he helped negotiate over months with Manchin’s input.

“My hope is that we can agree on the $555 billion. We’ve worked hard over six months to reach that agreement,” Markey said. “We use the climate provision as the foundation, and then we added anything else that could get 50 votes. I think that’s the right formula. It’s a winning formula. And we can get it done.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Democrats “should listen to what Sen. Manchin has put on the table” and recognize that it would be a major achievement — including for those who, like him, believe the climate provisions are essential.

“If we’re talking about raising taxes on very wealthy people and corporations to save the planet, why wouldn’t we be in that conversation?” he said. “We all need to understand the limitations of what we can do in a 50-vote Senate. So let’s stop focusing on what we can’t do and let’s start focusing on what we can do. And my sense is that’s where the president’s head is as well.”