WASHINGTON — After weeks of uncertainty over what he could support, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Thursday began to outline some of his specific demands for the “Build Back Better” bill Democrats see as vital to their legacy.
Manchin’s position, which he confirmed for the first time on Thursday, is far lower than what progressives and President Joe Biden have been seeking. Progressives initially pushed for a $6 trillion package. Democrats later narrowed their proposal to $3.5 trillion, but moderates like Manchin never signed on.
“My top line has been $1.5 [trillion],” Manchin told reporters of the maximum spending he is willing to support, confirming a Politico report that Manchin sealed an agreement on that number with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in July.
“He would like to have a lot more than that,” Manchin said of Biden, whom he has been negotiating with at the White House this week. If progressives want to pass a bigger bill, Manchin added, “they should elect more liberals.”
Biden won the presidency, by a wide margin, partly by campaigning on the policies Democrats are struggling to get Manchin to support.
Though he has now embraced a top number, that still leaves tons of uncertainty over what he policies could support inside the bill.
Democrats want to make community college free and prekindergarten universally available. They want to continue the monthly payments to most households with children that started this summer. They want to expand health care coverage for seniors and the poor. And they want new subsides for green energy.
Manchin has not publicly rejected any of these ideas, but he complained Thursday that too many new benefits would make the American people soft.
“I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving towards an entitlement mentality,” Manchin said on Thursday. “Because I’m more of a rewarding ― because I can help those who really need help if those who can help themselves do so.”
The “entitlement” comment is a throwback to an earlier era, before last year’s bipartisan agreement on sending pandemic relief checks even to the poorest households. Democrats have wanted their new policies to continue reaching people with the lowest incomes.
In terms of meeting the top-line number, Democrats have options. They could exclude low-income and high-income households from new benefits with “work requirements” and “means testing,” as Manchin has suggested. But they could also save on the bill’s cost by shortening official duration of various proposals, such as by saying the benefits stop in 2024 even if the ultimate goal is to make them permanent. Progressives favor the latter option.
“There’s many varieties [of the bill] I can vote for,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told HuffPost. “I don’t have a list of nonnegotiable demands. I just want to get it done.”
The typed agreement Manchin and Schumer both signed in July outlining Manchin’s demands said that Manchin does not guarantee voting for the reconciliation bill if it exceeds $1.5 trillion. It also includes a written note from Schumer, stating, “I will try to dissuade Joe on many of these.”
A Schumer spokesman confirmed the document’s authenticity and sought to downplay their boss’s signature on it.
“As the document notes, leader Schumer never agreed to any of the conditions Sen. Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Sen. Manchin was on the subject at the time,” the spokesman said in a statement. “As the document reads, Sen. Manchin did not rule out voting for a reconciliation bill that exceeded the ideas he outlined, and Leader Schumer made clear that he would work to convince Sen. Manchin to support a final reconciliation bill ― as he has doing been for weeks.”
For months, Manchin has refused to publicly state his preference for the cost of the reconciliation package. Asked Wednesday why he wasn’t more transparent about his demands on reconciliation, Manchin said he “was trying to honor my agreement” with Schumer.
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