Democrats hit pause on Biden's Build Back Better plan


Senate Democrats are putting President Biden’s climate and social spending plan on the back burner as they plan to debate voting rights legislation this month and hold a vote on changing the Senate's filibuster rule.

Democratic aides say the Build Back Better bill won't be ready for floor action anytime soon and predict the wide-ranging legislation that the White House has negotiated with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) may have to be completely overhauled.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) informed colleagues Monday the Senate will turn immediately to voting rights legislation and would vote to reform the chamber’s filibuster rule by Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17 if Senate Republicans block it.

“We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections,” Schumer wrote in his “Dear Colleague” letter.

Schumer made no mention of Build Back Better or when it might come to the floor, despite promising at the end of last year to schedule a vote on it before Christmas.

Democratic aides warn that means Build Back Better probably won’t be ready to come to the floor until March or later. And whatever version of the bill comes up for a vote will be markedly different from the $1.75 trillion framework that Manchin resoundingly rejected during a “Fox News Sunday” interview on Dec. 19, aides say.

Schumer announced in a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated on Dec. 20 that “senators should be aware that the Senate will, in fact, consider the Build Back Better Act, very early in the new year so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.”

The statement was seen as a direct jab at Manchin after he blew up Schumer’s schedule on Fox News.

But any such vote in the next few weeks would be guaranteed to fail and Schumer has previously told colleagues in meetings that he doesn’t want to force Manchin to vote on the bill before he is prepared to support it.

Forcing Manchin to vote against popular reforms such as expanded Medicare benefits, a national family paid leave program and more than $500 billion to address climate change might satisfy liberals such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The day that Manchin announced his opposition, Sanders declared: “If Sen. Joe Manchin wants to vote against the Build Back Better Act, he should have the opportunity to do so with a floor vote as soon as the Senate returns.”

But the defeat of Biden’s signature domestic policy plan on the Senate floor would also be a major embarrassment.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was able to pass the bill through the House, despite a slim five-seat majority, and Schumer’s predecessor, the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), was careful to make sure then President Obama’s major domestic policy bills had enough votes before bringing them to the floor.

While Schumer threatened last month to force such a showdown with Manchin, he’s showing less appetite for a public brawl, preferring instead to shift attention to an issue that unifies instead of divides Democrats: voting rights.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says focus groups show that Democratic voters became more interested in addressing voting reform at the end of last year, as they became more focused on election reform laws passed by GOP-controlled legislatures around the country ahead of the 2022 midterms.

“It’s really, really essential to being competitive in 2022 and to being a viable democracy. It’s very important for the base,” she said. “One of the things we found in the Virginia [gubernatorial] race was that our base was energized but [the Republican] base was supercharged. So we need to look at things that energize our base.

“In December, in our focus groups and polling we were seeing increased saliency for the issue because people were saying, ‘Okay, we’re now headed into an election,’” she said.

Aside from Manchin’s objections, processing the huge 2,000-plus page bill is a huge challenge in large part because Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough is battling breast cancer and a new surge in COVID-19 cases is raising concerns about in-person staff meetings.

Democratic senators and aides thought last month that Build Back Better might be ready for floor action the second week of January, but that was before Manchin delivered his coup de grĂ¢ce, telling Fox News’ Bret Baier: “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.”

“BBB is so in the tank it’s hard to imagine a world where we go back to where the bill was before,” said one Democratic aide.

The aide said Schumer’s approach “is to focus on other things while we figure out” how to save Build Back Better and knows there’s “no way” the bill can come to the floor this month.

In February, Congress will need to turn its attention to passing an omnibus government funding bill before the continuing resolution passed last month expires after Feb. 18.

The Senate is also scheduled to take a weeklong recess from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21 in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and another recess from Feb. 21 to Feb. 25 for Presidents’ Day.

The Washington Post reported that Manchin in mid-December said he would accept a $1.8 trillion package that included funding for 10 years of universal prekindergarten, an expansion of Affordable Care Act subsidies and hundreds of billions of dollars in new funding to address climate change.

But Manchin’s offer didn’t include an extension of the enhanced child tax credit, a major component of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which expired last month.

There’s also a major disagreement among Democrats over a proposal to lift the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, a top priority of Schumer and Pelosi, but one that has run into opposition from progressives such as Sanders and moderates such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

A second Democratic aide said the shift toward voting rights after the high-profile failure to pass Build Back Better in 2021 is designed to “mollify the base.”

The aide said voting rights legislation “always feels like the next thing up on the agenda.”

The Senate has already held three failed votes on voting rights legislation since Democrats captured the majority a year ago.

Manchin and Sinema have ruled out voting to weaken the Senate’s filibuster rule and are expected to oppose any rules change to circumvent an expected Republican blockade of voting rights legislation this month. 

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