WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin appears to have killed the Democrats’ domestic and climate change agenda as he announced Sunday on Fox News that he will vote no on the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act.
“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,” he said. “This is a no.”
Unless the party can change his mind or find another way forward, it is a devastating blow to the hopes of Democrats and President Joe Biden. Expanded childcare, universal prekindergarten, a $3,600-per-year child tax credit, four weeks of paid family leave, and hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate are among the policies that would be sunk by Manchin’s no vote.
The conservative West Virginia Democrat had voiced concerns for months about the size of the bill but insisted he would negotiate in good faith. On Sunday, he released a statement saying he will ultimately oppose the bill because he believes it will spike inflation and add a crippling amount to the national debt.
“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” his statement said. “I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight.”
Because the Senate is split 50-50 and Democrats are only in control because Vice President Kamala Harris votes to break ties, the support of every Democrat in the Senate is essential. Democrats had previously passed a version of the Build Back Better Act through the House, where their majority has more leeway.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement that Manchin’s comments on Fox News were "at odds" with the discussions he had with Biden.
Earlier in the week, she said Manchin had submitted an outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the "same size and scope as the President’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities."
"While that framework was missing key priorities, we believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all," Psaki said. "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 the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate."
If Manchin’s proclamation stands, Democrats would head into midterm elections next year having failed to deliver on their largest promises: Build Back Better was to be Biden’s signature legislative accomplishment.
Expanded child tax credit payments to parents are set to expire in January. Fixes to the Affordable Care Act to expand coverage, plus bringing down the price of some prescription drugs paid through Medicare, would also disappear.
Back in April, Biden set a bold new climate goal for the US to slash economywide emissions 50%–52% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. The Build Back Better plan funneled a record level of funding toward programs that would rapidly shift the country away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources. Without this bill, climate activists say, it's unclear if Biden's climate goals are even still obtainable.
The White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not immediately respond to questions about what happens next.
The bill had already been cut about in half due to the objections of centrist Democrats, in particular Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. The bill was originally planned to provide $3.5 trillion over the next decade in social programs and green initiatives, paid for by raising taxes on the rich.
In cutting down the size of the bill, the party made what may turn out to be a fatal error. Instead of cutting out whole planks of the plan, the party reduced their duration to bring the price tag down. For example, the child tax credit — an extremely popular support to parents of up to $3,600 per child annually — was only expanded for one year in the text instead of being made permanent. The calculation was that this would bring the price of the bill down on paper, and the credit would be extended with separate legislation later.
Republicans went to the Congressional Budget Office and asked for a pricing of Build Back Better if all programs were made permanent. The CBO found that while the bill as written is close to budget neutral, a version where every program is permanent would add $3 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.
Republicans touted this as proof that Democrats were hiding the true cost of the bill, and Manchin agreed. “They continue to camouflage the real cost of the intent behind the bill,” he said in his statement Sunday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a key negotiator as Senate budget chair and a top progressive in the Senate, said on CNN that he wants to put the Build Back Better Act to a floor vote in the Senate to force Manchin to explain his decision.
“We’ve been dealing with Mr. Manchin for month after month after month,” the independent from Vermont said. “But if he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”
—Zahra Hirji contributed reporting to this story.