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Is the ‘Build Back Better’ Act dead or just drifting?

Sen. Joe Manchin says talks on ‘Build Back Better’ have stopped; others report some progress has been made

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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is a centrist Democrat who is vital to the fate of President Joe Biden’s policy plans.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

What’s going on with the $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” spending measure? 

The answer to whether progress has been made in negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia — who derailed plans to pass the bill in mid-December — depends on whom you ask.

Sources can’t seem to agree on a forecast for the social policy and climate change plan, which contains programs like universal prekindergarten, funding support for families seeking child care and an expanded child tax credit, among other measures.

Manchin said on Dec. 19 that he was done with the bill due to concerns about certain provisions including the expanded child tax credit and the potential inflationary impact of such behemoth government spending. In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index put inflation at close to 7% for the year.

But then Axios reported over the weekend that Manchin is “open to re-engaging on the climate and child care provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda if the White House removes the enhanced child tax credit from the $1.75 trillion package — or dramatically lowers the income caps for eligible families.”

As part of COVID-19 relief, Congress expanded the child tax credit and at least a portion has been available to couples with household incomes up to $400,000 — deemed too high an income cap by critics, including Manchin. For the second half of 2021, it was delivered in monthly payments directly to families. That just ended.

According to Axios, Manchin and the president seemed close to a deal. Citing anonymous sources who were familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak, Axios reported, “The details included a $1.8 trillion offer from Manchin that contained money for universal preschool and green tax credits, but nothing for the child tax credit, which provides families up to $3,600 per child per year.”

After the report came out, Manchin refuted claims he’s been negotiating with the administration in the last couple of weeks.

According to Fox News, Manchin said on Tuesday, “There’s been no conversations after I made my statement. I was very clear. ... Inflation is still a concern. It’s still over 6%.” He noted the president’s ongoing disputes with Russian President Vladimir Putin created more pressing and potentially expensive issues to address.

Other reporters this week heard Manchin say the conversation had been dropped. 

According to Politico, “The West Virginia Democrat bluntly dismissed talk of progress from other members of his party over the last couple weeks and made clear he’s tired of discussing the $1.7 trillion proposal.”

“I’m really not going to talk about ‘Build Back Better’ because I think I’ve been very clear on that. There is no negotiation going on at this time,” Manchin told reporters outside his office Tuesday.

Per Politico, “Manchin called some of the bill ‘well-intended’ but argued other parts are a ‘far reach.’ In the past, he has raised questions about the price of the expanded child tax credit as well as the legislation’s paid leave provisions. On Tuesday, Manchin suggested that focusing the bill on climate might be easier than lumping in a hodgepodge of provisions that amount to much of his party’s domestic wish list from the past few years.”

“The climate thing is one that we probably could come to an agreement much easier than anything else,” Manchin said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has predicted Manchin will return to the negotiating table and talks will resume.

So what’s next?

According to Vox, Democrats must win over Manchin, but “thus far, they’ve had a hard time proposing a version of the bill that he’s willing to accept.” 

In December, Manchin’s office released a statement on the bill and why he doesn’t support it in its existing form.

“I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,’” he said in the news release. “Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation.”

He promised, however, to “continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address the needs of all Americans and do so in a way that does not risk our nation’s independence, security and way of life.”

Manchin said he relies on a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that finds the full cost of the act will be greater than claimed by the Biden administration if various programs included in it continue over time.

“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face. I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight,” Manchin said in the release. “The American people deserve transparency on the true cost of the Build Back Better Act. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office determined the cost is upwards of $4.5 trillion, which is more than double what the bill’s ardent supporters have claimed.“

The Washington Post reported before Christmas that Manchin’s “private offer to Biden” had some of the key provisions in “Build Back Better,” including universal prekindergarten for a decade, expansions to the Affordable Care Act, and money to fight climate change. But it did not include extending the expanded child tax credit, “an omission difficult for the White House to accept in the high-stakes negotiation.” The article cited three anonymous sources “familiar with the matter.”

The article quoted a statement by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who said that Manchin’s offer to the administration was of the “same size and scope as the president’s framework” for the bill.

“While that framework was missing key priorities, we believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all,” Psaki said.