Sunday morning, Joe Manchin threw a giant twist into the plot of the Biden presidency by announcing his opposition to the administration’s signature domestic agenda. But the new plot had a gaping hole: Biden noted that, a few days before walking away, Manchin had made a counteroffer to Biden at the White House.
What was the counteroffer? And why did Biden reject it?
The Washington Post fills in the answer. Manchin’s proposal included universal pre-kindergarten, an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and hundreds of billions of dollars in green energy spending, all totaling the promised $1.8 trillion.
The main conceptual difference between Manchin’s bid and Biden’s ask is that Biden is trying to fund more programs with the same amount of money and does it by phasing several of them out after a few years. Manchin opposes this from the right as a fiscally irresponsible scheme to start up programs that will get extended but lack any funding source. The more important argument against it is that these plans won’t be permanent, because a future Republican Congress will happily let them expire, which would mean the hard-won spending Biden negotiated will be for naught.
In order to make all the spending permanent, you have to cut some programs. Manchin decided to cut the Child Tax Credit, family leave, and child care. I would rather have all those programs, and if I had to keep one, I’d rather keep the Child Tax Credit. However, Manchin clearly holds the leverage here and is flaunting it by demonstrating his willingness to walk away with no deal.
A (probably) minor additional complication is that Manchin has hurt feelings from a Biden statement following their meeting last week. Steve Clemons, citing sources in the camps of both Joes, reports that Manchin thought the following statement by Biden was a breach of civility:
“I had a productive call with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer earlier today. I briefed them on the most recent discussions that my staff and I have held with Senator Manchin about Build Back Better. In these discussions, 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.”
No, really! That’s what he said! This is literally the portion of Biden’s statement that somehow offended Manchin! “When I saw Manchin’s name in the presidential statement,” reports Clemons, “I knew he would perceive it as a breach of process, a breach of spirit, a breach of Joe and Joe working this out.”
For Biden to defeat Donald Trump, then watch his domestic agenda go up in flames over “incivility” would be the stupidest possible outcome. Biden’s offending statement was so mild that, if Trump had said it, neutral reporters would be praising his growth and dignity.
It is possible Manchin will remain so angry about Biden’s anodyne statement that no deal will be possible. But it seems extremely easy for Biden to repair this damage and soothe Manchin’s bruised ego at absolutely no cost in policy. Politics is about making things better, not speaking truth to power.
The real catch is the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit that Biden extended earlier in the year — which, if not extended, will cause immediate pain for low-income families. Taking Manchin’s deal would mean finding another avenue to extend the CTC.
There are possibilities. Last February, Mitt Romney introduced a plan for a generous CTC that was, in fact, designed to deliver benefits more effectively than Biden’s own plan. Romney’s plan had several downsides: First, it’s paid for by cutting other anti-poverty programs. Second, it’s also paid for by eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes, which would generate opposition from a key handful of blue-state Democrats. And third, it drew immediate opposition from Republicans like party weathervane Marco Rubio and democracy-hater Mike Lee. Zero Republican senators came out for Romney’s plan.
However, if Manchin is implacably opposed to a CTC expansion, Romney could theoretically replace him as a 50th vote, if Romney agrees to move such a deal in a new budget-reconciliation bill. Romney would have enormous leverage over any such bill, though the imprimatur of another bipartisan plan might draw in a handful of Republican moderates in the House and perhaps Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski.
Romney, for his part, appears to have a keen interest in negotiating a Child Tax Credit:
In any case, taking Manchin’s deal doesn’t mean giving up on an expanded CTC. It would force Democrats to find some creative legislative solution. Maybe Romney would want to work on a signature domestic bill he could all but design himself. Maybe the sudden end of the checks would create a new groundswell to extend them that’s currently absent.
Either way, Manchin’s proposal gives Biden something vastly superior to the failure of Build Back Better. He would have the largest green-energy investment in history plus the creation of a permanent pre-kindergarten plan plus making health insurance universally available. He should beg Manchin’s forgiveness for his oh-so-rude statement and sign the deal tomorrow.