Reeling liberals ready to ditch Manchin as rest of Dems hope for a deal

By | December 21, 2021

The House’s fiercest liberals are — so far — showing little to no interest in the Build Back Better remodeling required to win over Joe Manchin.

A day after Manchin’s bombshell rejection of their party’s social spending plan, leaders of the left are so frustrated that they are now calling on Democrats to ignore him altogether. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who helms the roughly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Monday she would push the White House to take executive actions to enact some of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, despite widespread doubts among fellow Democrats about the effectiveness of such an approach.

After sustaining months of concessions meant to placate the Senate’s centrists, progressives say they are in no mood to substantially alter their bill any further. As they see it, the package Manchin rejected was already the scaled-back version of their ambitions.

“It is abundantly clear that we cannot trust what Sen. Manchin says,” Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters Monday. “No one should think that we are going to be satisfied with an even smaller package that leaves people behind or refuses to tackle critical issues like climate change.”

While Jayapal didn’t say Democrats should outright refuse to negotiate, she made clear that they shouldn’t put all their bets on the West Virginia centrist.

Senior House Democrats, however, say executive actions simply aren’t an option if the party hopes to enact a substantial piece of Biden’s social policy and climate priorities in his first term. While Congress offers only a narrow and difficult road to victory, they say it’s the only realistic path.

Many in the party say they’re still processing Manchin’s stiff-arm, which was delivered just after both chambers had adjourned for the holidays. But the overwhelming sentiment in the House Democratic caucus is that their signature domestic bill isn’t dead yet, according to multiple lawmakers and aides familiar with ongoing conversations.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated Monday that she was not abandoning Biden’s bill, which narrowly passed the House just before Thanksgiving. Manchin could be moved, she argued.

“We will not let this opportunity pass and we will make that case,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at an event in San Francisco. “I have confidence that Sen. Manchin cares about our country, and at some point very soon, we can take up the legislation. I’m not deterred at all.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed in a letter to his caucus Monday that he would still hold a floor vote on a version of the House-passed social spending bill, despite Manchin’s blatant opposition. Senate staff, meanwhile, met Monday with the parliamentarian to discuss whether certain provisions complied with chamber rules, a sign that Schumer (D-N.Y.) still plans to move forward. Senate Democrats will also convene Tuesday evening for a virtual caucus meeting to discuss rules changes aimed at weakening the filibuster, a long-sought goal of progressives.

Despite the left’s broader unwillingness to give further ground on the bill, several progressives indicated they would come to the table when faced with a something-or-nothing trade-off. As these liberals see it, they’ve waited long enough to make good on their promises to voters, and they want something to show for their current control of Congress and the White House.

“We can negotiate the details if [Biden] wants to continue the framework and work hard to bridge the differences. I’m open to that. What I’m not open to is getting nothing,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

Progressives had wanted the social spending plan hitched to the infrastructure bill Manchin helped write, concerned Senate moderates would otherwise do exactly what he did — yank support from the more left-leaning proposal to expand the social safety net. Under pressure from the White House and after Democrats suffered tough defeats in November’s elections, progressives eventually let the infrastructure bill go, after securing Biden’s assurance that all 50 Senate Democrats were on board.

A half-dozen progressives, nearly all members of the so-called liberal “squad,” voted against the infrastructure bill anyway. After Manchin’s announcement proved Biden had not locked in his party’s senators, some of those liberals felt vindicated.

“I didn’t agree with the strategy then to all of a sudden decouple the bills, which is why I voted no on the [infrastructure bill]. I obviously don’t agree with it now. But we’re not underwater yet,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), adding he blamed Manchin for what happened.

Manchin did call Jayapal on Monday morning, and the Washington Democrat said she voiced her frustration, though she declined to comment on his side of the conversation.

“It is abundantly clear that we cannot trust what Senator Manchin says,” Jayapal said, noting that she had also spoken to White House officials.

With the social spending bill stalled out for the foreseeable future, Jayapal declined to say which executive actions she would recommend to the White House but said leaders of the progressive caucus would meet Monday night on the way forward.

Not all Democrats were so quick to write off Manchin. They compared his Sunday outburst to a press conference he held last month to warn he might not support the final bill, depicting the latest twist as less than a final word.

And while liberals had called for Biden’s legislation to include as many priority programs as possible, even if each was only authorized over a short timeline, other senior Democrats are preparing to switch up that strategy. They’ve long been open to Manchin’s suggestion to target the bill on a few key benefits that would last longer. (Leaders of the center-left New Democrat Coalition have pushed the idea for months).

Manchin had some talks about that move with the White House last week, when he discussed a $1.8 trillion bill with decade-long programs including shoring up Obamacare and creating universal pre-K, according to several people familiar with the discussions.

That deal, as several Democrats pointed out, wouldn’t actually be a trimmed version of the House-passed bill: it would have almost the same price tag, just with fewer programs guaranteed for longer time periods.

If Manchin does recommit to negotiations, House Democratic leaders must still navigate a complex landscape. A Manchin-ized bill that can win over enough progressives may still disappoint one key group: the three House Democrats who have tied their votes to immigration reform.

Before Manchin rejected the package outright, the Senate’s rules arbiter had already rejected the legislation’s immigration provisions as noncompliant with Senate rules. That puts the trio of Latino Democrats who’d staked their votes on a social spending bill with immigration included in a tough spot.

“It is going to be nearly impossible for me to vote on the Build Back Better [bill] if there aren’t any immigration proposals. And they better be good,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) said in an interview.

“We’re not taking no for an answer,” added Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), though he wouldn’t say definitively whether he would block the bill without immigration.

Not including immigration reform could be an issue in the upper chamber too. “It’ll have a hard time passing the Senate if there’s not something on immigration,” predicted Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.).

Then there’s the handful of Northeastern Democrats pushing to change Trump-era tax rules that capped breaks on state and local taxes. Those Democrats, led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), have refused to back a bill without substantial tax relief for their states.

“I’m less concerned about who did what wrong and more concerned about how to get something done. And the only way to get something done is to figure out 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House,” Khanna said.

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.