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Biden faces legacy-defining challenge in salvaging his Build Back Better bill

For a man who rode into the presidency on a platform of Washington know-how, he now confronts perhaps his most consequential test yet: Can he save his domestic agenda?

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has spent nearly half a century in public office, but his legacy could turn on this moment.

The Build Back Better Act, a smorgasbord of Biden's plans to rewrite the social contract and combat climate change, hangs by a thread. And his only hope is to flip recalcitrant Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of ruby-red West Virginia, who sent the White House into a tailspin over the weekend by announcing his opposition.

For a man who has been a senator and vice president and rode into the presidency on a platform of Washington know-how and the relationships to get big things done, Biden faces perhaps his most consequential test yet: Can he save the essence of his domestic agenda — a bill so encompassing that it bears the name of his presidential campaign slogan?

His task now is to restructure the roughly $2 trillion package in a way that satisfies Manchin's demand for a leaner bill while staying true to his ambitions to deliver major relief for Americans. It means holding together the 99 percent of congressional Democrats who support the broad scope of the bill, particularly House progressives, who feel betrayed by Manchin after they made sacrifices to placate him.

"Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done," Biden told reporters Tuesday.

There is no Plan B. Democrats control wafer-thin majorities in Congress and face unanimous GOP opposition on most of Biden's agenda. They get one chance per fiscal year to bypass the Senate's 60-vote threshold and muscle through economic priorities.

And except for a bipartisan infrastructure law Biden signed last month, there is little hope for the rest of his legislative priorities, such as voting rights, gun control and a policing overhaul. Those proposals are subject to the 60-vote filibuster.

"The White House does see the pieces of Build Back Better — like the child tax credit, like climate investments, like ensuring free pre-K for Americans — all of those issues the president does see as part of his legacy," said Xochitl Hinojosa, a political strategist who was the communications director for the Democratic National Committee in the 2020 election cycle. "That is why he wants to get it done."

The White House further rankled Manchin with a statement Sunday in which press secretary Jen Psaki questioned his commitment to his word. But tensions have subsided in recent days. Biden and Manchin held a cordial phone call Sunday night, two sources said, and Manchin participated in a virtual caucus meeting with senators to discuss the bill Tuesday, signaling some hope for its revival.

"While this is a hiccup, I do not think this is the end," Hinojosa said. "There is no better negotiator than Joe Biden. He understands how to do this.

"What the White House is looking to do, which will be a little bit harder, is to figure out which pieces they have to take out, what they can pass, given that passing something is better than not providing relief at all," she said.

Adrienne Elrod, who worked on Biden's 2020 campaign as director of surrogate strategy, noted that the administration has identified January and February as key months to passing Build Back Better.

"In the first quarter of next year, they need to get this bill passed. I think that's really important. And I think they will," she said. "You want to have a long runway going into the midterms with serious accomplishments to tout, and they already have a lot of accomplishments to be proud of."

'Taking on the country's challenges'

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Manchin for opposing the House-passed bill, saying Wednesday on Fox News that the Democrat "gave the American people the Christmas gift they needed. He killed this bill in its current form which would have been really, really bad for America."

Two sources familiar with the negotiations acknowledged that Covid-19 and the rapid spread of the omicron variant could further complicate Biden's efforts to push forward his agenda as he grapples with the latest front in the battle to defeat the pandemic. Still, the White House insists that every administration has to multitask, and it argues that this moment is no different.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates credited the administration for record job creation, a roughly 70 percent vaccination rate and nearly all schools reopening.

"Being president means taking on the country’s challenges all at once. The American people support the Build Back Better economic growth plan for the middle class because it will cut the biggest costs families face and fight inflation for the long haul," Bates said in a statement. "They also support his mobilization against Covid-19, despite an unprecedented misinformation effort against vaccines and partisan obstruction that aids the virus. He’s fighting to deliver on both."

Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama who helped navigate the Great Recession and the efforts to pass Obamacare, said the legislation would be a boon to Biden.

"Passing the Build Back Better agenda especially with these narrow margins would be a massive accomplishment. It would strengthen President Biden's hand in the short term and be the foundation for a reelection campaign," he said in an email. "I have no doubt it would be treated fondly by history, but I promise you no one is worrying about legacy less than one year into the first term in the middle of a raging pandemic with an insurrectionist opposition party."

Biden's allies say he deserves more credit for vaccinating the country against Covid-19 and reviving the economy. Historians will debate presidential crisis management, but that can be fleeting for ordinary voters. At kitchen tables, Biden will be remembered for successes that outlast him — in this case, whether he makes it easier to raise children and to afford health care and medication.

And in the Build Back Better bill, climate activists see something bigger at stake than Biden's legacy: a now-or-never moment to act to prevent irreversible damage to the planet.

Jamal Raad, a co-founder of Evergreen Action, said it is an "inflection point" for Biden's presidency, because climate policy "will be a legacy-defining issue for the president."

"This is a real test of leadership," he said. "This is our last, best chance. President Biden has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn the tide in the fight against climate change."