WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin says he’s still interested in passing major pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda — but sources close to Manchin, D-W.Va., say Democrats may be making a big mistake by waiting for him to lay out precisely what he’d support.
Manchin has expressed interest in passing a bill through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process that would raise taxes, reduce the deficit, cut prescription drug costs and fund energy and climate measures, even though some Democrats fear he is running out the clock. He also began leading bipartisan talks on energy over the last two weeks, prompting worries among Democrats that he’s losing interest in a party-line bill to pass major climate policies.
But sources close to Manchin believe Democrats are making an error by passively waiting for him to craft his own detailed legislation, which many in the party have grumbled he should do ever since he rejected Biden’s Build Back Better plan in December.
People familiar with Manchin's thinking say he has repeatedly laid out his demands in public but that he’s unlikely to put pen to paper to write a reconciliation bill — that's a job for Democratic leaders.
“The best approach would be for the White House to come up with a plan, get his approval and then hand it off” to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “to keep everybody in line,” said a person familiar with Manchin’s thinking, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “He’s not going to write a partisan bill. That’s not who he is.”
The source said of the White House: “They want it more than he does.”
A Biden speech designed for Manchin
White House officials insist they’ve been sounding out Manchin about what he’s willing to support. Schumer met recently with Manchin behind closed doors in what was billed as a conversation about combating inflation.
Schumer said the meeting was “preliminary and good, and we’re going to continue to keep talking.” He added that “the only way to get rid of inflation is through reconciliation,” because “no Republican” is willing to raise taxes.
Some Democrats say negotiations should be quiet.
“I think we would do better to not announce what we think we’re going to accomplish and just go ahead and accomplish it,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of Schumer’s leadership team.
Biden gave a speech Wednesday about reviving his agenda that appeared designed for Manchin’s ears, naming deficit reduction, drug prices and climate change as the basis for a potential bill.
Yet none of the key players have written a bill along those lines, which would require painful compromises that would disappoint scores of progressives by confirming that various social spending plans they want are off the table. Some Democrats also believe Manchin's demands have shifted, and they worry they could shift again.
A Senate Democratic aide said, “There continue to be good conversations with Sen. Manchin.”
Manchin has said he’d support a package of higher taxes on upper earners and corporations, as long as new spending programs are funded permanently and half the savings are put to deficit reduction. While Manchin has kept the door open to extending health care benefits that are set to expire, Build Back Better priorities like universal pre-K, child care and child tax credit payments are all unlikely to survive in any revised bill.
'Fighting inflation with tax reforms'
Manchin reiterated his support Monday for a filibuster-proof bill, saying his priority is to combat inflation.
“My main thing is inflation, fighting inflation with tax reforms,” Manchin told reporters. “We ought to get rid of this debt and start, in a responsible way, handling our finances.”
Manchin’s bipartisan energy talks have yielded little evidence that a compromise is possible, with some, like Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., openly pouring cold water on them, saying he's "deeply skeptical" the group will reach a deal that makes sense.
Manchin himself has acknowledged an obvious hurdle to a bipartisan deal: Any such package would have to be paid for, and Republicans are uninterested in raising taxes to finance it.
“That’s one of the challenges here,” Manchin said of the financing. “We have to have reliable energy, and we have to have it clean.”
Some Democrats optimistically believe Manchin's goals will have to be moved into a party-line bill or that any bipartisan talks would end up on a separate track with a narrower set of issues. More pessimistic progressives fear a Trojan horse to destroy Biden’s agenda by either delaying or supplanting a reconciliation bill.
Either way, time is running out. Democrats, who control the 50-50 Senate and can't lose any votes, are working under the assumption that the effective deadline is the monthlong August recess. Some worry that they need a clear framework by the end of the May to stay on track.
Even if Democrats write a bill that meets Manchin's stated demands, one concern is that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., opposes higher tax rates on the wealthy and corporations that Manchin has called for. But Manchin still hasn't said they're a must, and the House-passed bill included about $2 trillion in revenue through alternative means.
Asked whether his specific tax rate proposals are essential to win his vote, Manchin said: "I'm just saying you've got a chance to get your financial house in order, you got a chance to start paying down your debt and taking inflation serious enough to change the trajectory."
CORRECTION (May 8, 2022, 8:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Schumer and Manchin met. They met April 26, not last week.