WASHINGTON — It seemed like an innocuous enough update. Using diplomatic language, a White House statement last Thursday attributed to President Joe Biden said he would continue to negotiate the Build Back Better plan with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
“I believe that we will bridge our differences,” it said.
But that one memo appears to have tanked negotiations and imperiled Biden’s entire domestic agenda — at least for now. The party is currently trapped in a war of words. Some Democrats are openly questioning Manchin’s integrity, while he accuses them of trying to beat him into submission.
Policies like universal prekindergarten, subsidized child care, Medicaid expansion, child tax credit payments of up to $300 per month for parents, and funds to convert the US electricity grid to green energy may all now be sunk because of apparent hurt feelings between two longtime friends.
On Sunday, Manchin appeared on Fox News to announce he is opposed to the Build Back Better plan, which would kill the legislation. He cited the cost of the bill and concerns about inflation. But on Monday morning while talking to West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval, he hinted at another reason talks broke down.
Manchin referenced a statement released by the president before saying, “I just got to the wit’s end. And they know the real reason, what happened. They won’t tell you and I’m not going to.”
After Herchevel pressed him, Manchin added, “It’s not the president, it’s his staff. And they drove some things and they put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable.”
Attention turned to the Thursday update. On its face, it seems straightforward and it made no waves at the time. “Senator Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September. I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan, even in the face of fierce Republican opposition,” it reads.
Steve Clemons, a friend of Manchin’s, wrote in the Hill Monday that the statement was interpreted by Manchin as singling out and blaming him for negotiations being delayed into next year. Politico reported that Manchin asked, in advance, not to be solely named in the statement and then snapped at White House staff when he was.
By Sunday evening, after the Fox News interview, no one had to squint to find blame being cast. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement accusing Manchin of committing “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.”
On the radio Monday morning, Manchin said he expected this. “They retaliated. I figured they would come back strong.”
“They figured surely to god we can move one person,” Manchin said. “Surely we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough they’ll just say, ‘OK, I’ll vote for anything,’ just quit. But guess what, I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from where they can just beat the crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive. Period.”
Throughout it all, there is confusion among everyone — even top negotiators — whether Build Back Better is actually dead. Some are throwing up their hands in frustration.
Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal held a call with reporters Monday to accuse Manchin of going back on his word and alleged he had planned to tank negotiations all along. “That lack of integrity is stunning,” she said. “We cannot trust what Sen. Manchin says.”
Jayapal said she is done trying to work with Manchin and urged the White House to use executive actions to implement as much of the Build Back Better plan as it can without going through Congress. “I am not going to negotiate with Joe Manchin on something that I’m not even sure he wants to do. What’s the point of that?”
Others are holding out more hope. One Senate staffer told BuzzFeed News Monday that there is still an expectation in that chamber that talks can be salvaged in the new year and a plan supported by Manchin could pass. The White House is also vowing to keep fighting.
Psaki said that Thursday’s statement released from her office was not meant to offend. “That was not intended to be directive or hurtful but to be a statement of fact,” she said.
Democrats started the year by passing a bill with almost $2 trillion in COVID relief, including a child tax credit paying parents up to $300 per month per child. They followed it up this fall with a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
But now they find themselves ending the year on a low point. Provisions of the COVID bill like the child tax credit and a moratorium on student loan payments are set to expire in January. Build Back Better was supposed to revolutionize child care and youth education in America while also making major investments to fight climate change. Now Democrats are looking to the possibility of going into next year’s midterm elections having failed to deliver on their biggest promises.
But Psaki continued to project hope Monday that talks can turn around. In doing so she pointed to the personal ties between Manchin and Biden, who have spent the week very publicly feuding.
“They’re longtime friends,” Psaki said. “That has not changed.”