Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is emerging as the chief obstacle to quick passage of President Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure package that Democrats want to move through Congress sooner rather than later.
Manchin is ramping up discussions with Republicans about what a scaled-down infrastructure package should look like, and some GOP senators are even optimistic that the moderate Democrat can be persuaded to block efforts to raise the corporate tax rate.
That means Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will likely have to wait for the negotiations to reach some kind of conclusion before moving ahead with the budget reconciliation process, as Manchin is expected to be the critical 50th Democratic vote needed to avoid a GOP filibuster.
Senate Republicans proposed a $568 billion infrastructure counter-offer last week. Now, bipartisan talks on a compromise proposal between $600 billion and $1 trillion are just getting started.
Manchin wants time for the talks to build momentum.
“For the sake of our country, we have to show we can work in a bipartisan way,” he said Monday evening. “I don’t know what the rush is.”
“Stay here a little bit, work a little bit,” he advised colleagues.
But Democrats are getting nervous about an extended timeline and worry that splitting Biden’s infrastructure agenda into two or three pieces of legislation might mean that a substantial part of it gets left behind.
“I’m the most anxious member of the Democratic caucus. I want to get it done and done quickly,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday when asked how long Democrats are willing to wait on bipartisan infrastructure talks.
Manchin said over the weekend that he wants to focus on “conventional infrastructure” such as roads, bridges, water projects and expanded broadband internet, and proposed splitting off about $400 billion in funding for home- and community-based caregivers for the elderly and people with disabilities, as well as billions of dollars for childcare.
While Manchin said such priorities are “needed,” he added that doesn’t want to lump too many of them in a broad bill because he thinks it would be tougher to sell to the public.
His remarks dealt a blow to other Senate Democrats who want to pass as large a package as possible, and who called the $568 billion Republican proposal “totally inadequate” and a “slap in the face.”
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, on Monday said he does not support splitting up Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure package into two pieces.
“Time is not on our side. We have so many things to do,” he said. “Immigration, policing. All of these things are critical elements and we don’t have a lot of time on the calendar.”
“The sooner the better, to keep everything together and move it in a package that works,” he added of Biden’s proposal.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he wants to move as quickly as possible, warning that past efforts to negotiate with Republicans, such as on the Affordable Care Act in 2009, ended up wasting time.
“We have learned that lesson in the past. I think we should have our ears open, we should listen to any great ideas, any good ideas that Republicans have. But obviously it cannot be an endless process. It has to move very quickly,” he said Monday.
Sanders balked at Manchin’s suggestion of segmenting out the home- and community-based care portions of the package.
Manchin, however, is praising the $568 billion framework put together by fellow West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) as “a good start.” The blueprint is focused on roads, bridges, transit systems, rail, water infrastructure and airports.
Democrats are also nervous about Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s proposal to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, saying a 25 percent rate is more reasonable.
He met last week with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch Trump ally, to explore ways to fund a compromise infrastructure package without relying heavily on tax increases.
“Watch Joe Manchin. Joe’s going to be a key player here,” Graham told “Fox News Sunday.”
“I think there’s a sweet spot on infrastructure where we can find pay-fors that won’t hurt the economy. If you raise taxes, you’re going to destroy jobs,” Graham said.
Many Democrats are skeptical of efforts to pursue GOP proposals.
“Take a deep breath and face reality. If we’re going to do something big and bold and build the 21st century economy, we’re not going to do it with what [Republicans] have suggested: user fees and tolls,” Durbin said Monday.
Manchin has urged Schumer and his other Democratic colleagues not to use the budget reconciliation process to pass Biden’s agenda, an approach that would shut out Republicans and allow for a simple majority vote in the 50-50 Senate.
“I simply do not believe budget reconciliation should replace regular order in the Senate. How is that good for the future of the nation?” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this month.
Manchin balks at being called a roadblock to Biden’s agenda.
“I’m not a roadblock at all. The best politics is good government,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” over the weekend.
He also reiterated his opposition to changing the Senate’s filibuster rule to curtail GOP power to block Biden’s priorities, such as police reform and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“I’m not going to be a part of blowing up this Senate of ours or basically this democracy of ours,” he said Sunday.
Senate Democratic sources say they expect the bipartisan infrastructure talks to fizzle and Manchin to vote with them to pass a $2 trillion-plus infrastructure package under budget reconciliation.
They argue that West Virginia, which had a 5.9 percent unemployment rate in March and a 14.9 percent poverty rate by last measure, needs its share of the $2.25 trillion plan as much as any state.
“He’s still trying to find his way as the new most important ‘big man on campus,’ but I think he’ll have a very hard time standing up to the pressure of the administration. I think he’ll find his way back home,” said a Senate Democratic aide, referring to Manchin’s power in an evenly split Senate where Democrats cannot afford a single defection.
The aide predicted that if Manchin winds up derailing or excessively delaying Biden’s infrastructure package, the backlash from within the party will be swift and damaging.
“The more he plays that game, I think the more the pushback becomes significant and starts having legs to it,” the aide added.
While Manchin is coming under increasing pressure from fellow Democrats to support passing Biden’s full package without splitting it up, his reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker is also at stake.
During the negotiation of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, Manchin played a central role in narrowing the number of Americans eligible for $1,400 stimulus checks by helping to craft a deal to phase out the direct checks for people earning $80,000 or more, instead of the $99,000 cut-off favored by House Democrats.
He was also instrumental in shrinking the federal unemployment benefits in that bill from $400 a week to $300 a week and limiting the tax deductibility of unemployment benefits collected in 2020.
Despite Manchin’s efforts to address the concerns of GOP colleagues who said the rescue plan needed to be more narrowly targeted, not a single Republican in either chamber voted for the package.
If Manchin drags out consideration of the infrastructure package for weeks or months without securing any GOP votes for whatever bill finally gets passed, some Democrats say his reputation as a dealmaker will suffer severely.
“That’s what’s at risk for him. He’s going to have to put up or shut up,” said the Democratic aide.
A second Senate Democratic aide, however, said Manchin represents a broader group of centrist Democrats who would like to rack up a significant bipartisan accomplishment with Republican votes before trying to move other elements of Biden’s agenda under reconciliation.
“There are other Democrats who agree with him but they don’t need to go out there and say it and take shit from the left,” the aide said.
The aide also said the GOP counter-offer unveiled last week “is a lot better” than the $618 billion COVID-19 relief package a group of 10 moderate Republicans floated to Biden earlier in the year.
Democrats quickly dismissed the GOP’s counter-offer on coronavirus relief and passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan by a party-line vote.
The source predicted that even if Manchin fails to bring about a bipartisan infrastructure deal, he’ll remain a powerbroker for the rest of the 117th Congress.