House Dems find a surprise unifier: Joe Manchin

By | July 29, 2022

House Democrats met Joe Manchin’s surprise deal with a bigger twist: unity behind it.

The kumbaya moment-in-the-making is a welcome reversal for the downtrodden Democratic caucus that until two days ago was preparing for a summer recess with a fairly meager slate of accomplishments to tout. They’d encountered letdown after letdown on abortion, climate and a high-profile guns and policing package.

Then Manchin’s unexpected agreement on a party-line climate, tax and health care bill single-handedly sparked a dramatic realignment of the caucus’s attitude.

“It’s a really, really good deal,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a frequent Manchin critic who this time called the West Virginia senator’s dealings a “pleasant surprise” and added: “It’s good to go into recess with a lot of momentum that people can go back to their districts and run on.”

Manchin isn’t exactly the savior they anticipated. House Democrats across the spectrum have launched public grenades at him for nearly a year now as he blocked some of the party’s biggest priorities — from voting rights to expanding abortion access to multiple earlier versions of their sweeping domestic policy bill. Some preemptively blamed him for losing their majority this fall.

But after months of feeling like Charlie Brown hoping Manchin’s Lucy won’t yank the football away, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her caucus are now eager to take whatever Manchin and the rest of Senate Democrats can get through their 50-50 majority. If Democrats manage to pass the bill, it will give them a chance to trumpet action on several long-running campaign promises — on taxes, climate and drug pricing — in the months before a potentially brutal November election.

“It’s not the full Build Back Better bill. But it’s a significant investment. … It’s a step forward. It would be a significant victory and it is the president’s agenda and the Democratic agenda,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose members quickly lined up behind the Senate deal.

Jayapal’s embrace of the moderate senator comes just two weeks after she blasted Manchin as someone who “can’t close a deal” and said Democrats “can’t trust what he says” when it appeared he had scuttled the broader proposal. And she’s hardly the only one shifting course.

Even House Democrats who had previously threatened to draw a hard line unless the package included relief for state and local taxes, known as SALT, are quickly signaling that they will fall in line.

“We needed to see SALT in any bill that reopened the 2017 tax bill, that had other tax impacts on our middle-class constituents. This doesn’t do that. This is a bill on a completely different set of issues,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said. “None of us said we were not going to vote for any bill coming out of the Senate unless it deals with SALT.”

The boost to House Democrats’ collective self-esteem comes at a sorely needed time.

Sharp disagreements within the caucus had just forced Pelosi to punt a policing package that included the Democrats’ marquee bill to ban semi-automatic weapons. Even bipartisan legislation to address burn pit victims is mired in a procedural snafu over in the Senate.

Unlike previous episodes of the extended Manchin drama, very few Democrats are digging in against their own this time around. And party leaders are urging their members to embrace the deal, despite it being a downsized version of what their party once dreamed up.

“The moment we have a chance to do reconciliation, we have to take it,” Pelosi told members in a closed-door meeting Thursday morning, according to two people in the room. “We are very pleased with that.”

Afterwards, Pelosi predicted to reporters that she would have the votes to pass the party-line deal on her side of the Capitol.

Even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has privately made overtures to House members: The New York Democrat received a mostly rosy reception when he joined a call with progressives on Thursday, where he outlined the deal and thanked them for helping force the House to vote on the initial package.

The burst of good news from the Senate may have unexpectedly helped another top Biden item this week: a bill to boost semiconductor manufacturing.

Few Democrats would publicly acknowledge that Manchin’s deal helped them sway liberal votes for a microchips bill that the left had initially scorned as a corporate giveaway. Elation over the surprise Manchin-Schumer agreement wasn’t the only factor, given the White House’s backdoor outreach to progressives in recent days.

But in the end, zero Democrats opposed it — a turn that several aides privately speculated was, in part, due to the ability to stick it to a rankled Mitch McConnell after the Senate minority leader vowed to sink the manufacturing bill if Democrats pursued their health care, energy and tax bill. Manchin announced his deal with Schumer hours after the semiconductor bill passed the Senate.

It’s been more than eight months since the House passed their version of Biden’s sweeping domestic policy vision. That $1 trillion-plus bill, which drew comparisons to Great Depression-era social programs, no longer exists. Instead, as the nation’s inflation anxiety mounts, Manchin is handing House Democrats a bill that’s been re-engineered to reduce the deficit, while also reflecting their earlier goals of tax reform and climate.

Another vote doesn’t seem far away. House Democrats are expected to return from their August recess in less than two weeks to take up the legislation after it passes the Senate, which Schumer has estimated could take 10 days. (Part of the Senate’s schedule will be determined by Democrats having all 50 of their members available to vote, a perpetual problem for the Covid-stricken caucus, as well as meeting certain requirements that govern evading the chamber’s filibuster rules.)

House Democratic leaders have their own math considerations: They want to pass the bill before their already-slim margin for error shrinks in a matter of weeks thanks to a special election in Minnesota, where Republicans are expected to regain a seat as they replace the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.).

After Hagedorn’s likely GOP successor is sworn in, Democrats will only be able to lose three of their own members on a party-line bill that will face unified Republican opposition. And Democrats’ numbers are expected to shrink further after a pair of special elections in New York on Aug. 23.

“Realistically, what they have now I think is — I won’t say it’s take it or leave it — but it’s certainly if we’re not going to risk having further delay and losing that which we have, then I think we need to pass it,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, predicting the House will pass the deal as is.

And while several Democrats still lamented that many of their priorities were being cut out, they also accepted the legislative reality of a 50-50 Senate. In the words of Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), letting Manchin largely dictate the scope of a deal was a “pattern [that] seems to have been tolerated for almost eight months.”

“So this occurring — while surprising and lacking in other input — it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, anything new,” Grijalva added.

Or, as Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) bluntly put it: “Joe Manchin’s for it. So it’s enough.”