Sen. Joe Manchin’s approach to the “Build Back Better” Act seems to be building back different. Those who are watching the back-and-forth between the Democratic senator and his party suspect the bill’s components will have to be pulled apart and legislated separately if any of them are to win Senate approval.

Manchin, D-W.Va., doesn’t like the original bill. And without his vote, it won’t pass because the Democratic majority is razor-thin. So both critics and proponents of “Build Back Better” have become Manchin watchers, looking for hints that he’d support one piece of the package or another.

Manchin-watching has led some to believe that pieces of the original bill on controlling inflation, redoing the tax code, bringing down the cost of prescription drugs and addressing climate change could pass — but probably only as individual measures or within a vastly slimmer bill than the current $2 trillion proposal. Some believe universal pre-K could survive, too. 

“Plenty of Democrats would prefer that Manchin just write his own desired bill rather than turn the House and the Senate into teams of movie detectives trying to solve coded riddles left behind by a mysterious killer,” NBC News reported. 

The article said that Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., has urged the party to just “give him the pen” and pass the pieces of the massive social support bill that he likes. But it noted that the senator hasn’t seemed very anxious to take that first step or clearly detail what would win his support.

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Manchin himself has suggested that his fellow senators use a “clean sheet of paper” and start over. His priorities in the short term are inflation and rolling back the 2017 changes to the tax code that gave corporations a big break.

Of “Build Back Better” in its existing form, Manchin uses the word “dead.”

The House passed the act in 2021. Senate leadership is now trying to pass the bill through reconciliation, which would require a simple majority vote.

But as Roll Call reported, options are limited on “even a bite-sized version of it, (because) Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who suffered a cerebral stroke, is out recuperating from brain surgery, his office said Tuesday.” Party leaders said they don’t think Lujan will be absent long.

But not everyone’s sure that Manchin wants to be wooed into large social infrastructure spending. And some seem tired of trying. 

“Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has sounded particularly impatient and called for votes on some or all of the original bill to force a public debate over its policies,” NBC News reported.

“It is an absolute outrage that we’re not passing it,” Sanders said. “The best way to pass it, eventually, is to bring votes to the floor and force people to take votes on behalf of the American people. If they choose to vote against their constituents, fine. But let’s have those votes.”

Pieces of policy

If the discussions seems “taxing,” so is a possible solution. Wednesday, Manchin told reporters that his fellow lawmakers need to “just fix the tax code. Just fix the taxes.”

That, by the way, is where the battle over Democrat legislative priorities could take another turn. Should senators deal with the tax code as a way to appease the West Virginian, they might lose the vote of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who has also been at odds with her Democrat colleagues a few times. She has said she opposes any tax hike, so she would likely not support his priority of rolling back the tax breaks given corporations during the previous administration.

Either of the two senators could derail any measure on any topic that faces party-line Republican opposition, as Business Insider noted

Some watching the discussion predict specific policy pieces could get through on their own.

David Mitchell, co-founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, likes the piece of “Build Back Better” that takes aim at exorbitant drug prices. The bill would let Medicare administrators negotiate drug prices for some medications that are both high-priced and widely used by Medicare beneficiaries, potentially saving both taxpayers and individuals a lot of money. The bill also penalizes drug companies that raise their prices faster than inflation. And it specifically lowers the cost of insulin, which is often used by retires and people of all ages. It would cap the lifesaving drug at $35 a month, where people now may pay hundreds.

Mitchell thinks the popularity of that section of the “Build Back Better” Act has enough popular support that legislators might be moved to make it happen in some form. But others counter that powerful pharmaceutical industry lobbyists may hold those reforms at bay.

Other scholars and advocates highlighted different pieces of the bill. For example, Barbara J. Risman, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Gender and Society, believes that universal pre-K not only provides a safe, high-quality boost for young children, but it also helps the economy and families by allowing parents to work, while easing the cost of day care. 

In January, Shawn Fremstad, senior policy fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told the Deseret News he believes a robust child care package might survive the expected dismantling of “Build Back Better.” 

“It’s the one thing that united both the Manchin wing of the Democrats (what little remains of it), the Democrats in the Progressive Caucus and has always been a core part of Biden’s campaign agenda, as well as other Democratic candidates,” he said. It’s also a kind of ‘wedge issue’ that divides the GOP.”

While Fremstad hopes that the child tax credit will be modified to more resemble a child allowance — something that’s been touted by both conservative and more liberal experts as helpful to families — he doubts it will happen. More Republican legislators would have to see it as a stronger help to families than universal child care, he said. And recent discussion hasn’t suggested that’s likely.

Different priorities

Earlier this month, The First Focus Campaign for Children wrote President Joe Biden a letter urging him to use executive action to boost support of children, whether the “Build Back Better” bill dies or survives. It suggests the president revert to the name “The American Family Plan,” as well, to emphasize who the beneficiaries of the bill would be.

While the group supports measures that Manchin has rejected soundly, like an expanded child tax credit, they want the president to measurably improve support of children, including establishing a “best interest of the child standard” and mandate “child impact statements,” which the group says is already done in some countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and some U.S. communities, among others.

Meanwhile, a group of House Democrats called for the president to focus on the $555 billion in climate change investments in the “Build Back Better” plan.

In a letter to the president dated Jan. 31, 23 House Democrats up for reelection in swing states referred to that part of “Build Back Better” as “the most consequential climate change legislation in history” and extolled the impact as something that “science and justice require.”

They said the impact on families would include creating and sustaining jobs with good wages. The populations most vulnerable to climate change, according to the letter, include “frontline ad communities of color, children with asthma and the elderly.” They also talked about the impact on farmers and ranchers and marine life, with major ripples in the food chain and the economy.