“I’m never giving up on” Build Back Better, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday. In that regard, she’s got a lot of company. Much of the mainstream press, too, cannot give up on this corpse of a bill.
On Tuesday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was asked—inexplicably and for the umpteenth time—whether there was any hope for the mammoth reconciliation bill. “What Build Back Better bill?” the senator replied with deserved contempt. “I don’t know what y’all are talking about.”
“No, no, no, no,” the senator concluded curtly. “It’s dead.” Amazingly, this entirely unambiguous statement apparently required some clarification, and Manchin was soon asked to elaborate on what he meant by “it’s dead.” The senator said of “the whole big package,” “that’s gone.” He added, though, that he didn’t know how he would vote on a smaller package of progressive reforms. “We’ll see what people come up with.”
Manchin must know the torment he is imposing on his fellow Democrats by allowing them to hope. There are no “formal talks” ongoing about what might replace Build Back Better, much less on that replacement’s scope and cost. Nevertheless, the left still insists that the bill can be exhumed and reanimated if only Manchin wasn’t being so coy about what he would support. But frustration is a two-way street. The left’s commitment to being confounded by succinct sentences composed of monosyllabic words must be similarly irritating for Manchin.
On Wednesday, the West Virginia senator said he would support a reconciliation bill to “fix” the nation’s tax code. “Take care of the debt,” he said, adding, “$30 trillion should scare the bejesus out of your generation.” When asked if he could support tax-code reform that would raise revenues and reduce the deficit, Manchin enthusiastically confirmed that he would. “Deficit reduction, inflation, being fiscally responsible,” he said, “sounds like something we should be talking about!”
The senator’s comments this week produced a familiar bout of handwringing over the his refusal to negotiate with himself in public, which has become a regular occurrence. But Manchin has been clear about what he would endorse, and he has spoken plainly about his preferences for months. If Democrats were willing to hear what he was saying, they might have concluded that Build Back Better was a dead letter as early as last summer.
Back when we were still calling it the Democrats’ “$3.5 trillion budget blueprint,” Manchin made it plain that he would not support that much new spending and he wouldn’t allow his colleagues to short-circuit the legislative process to get their agenda through a divided upper chamber of Congress. “Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession,” Manchin wrote in a statement in August.
What Manchin would support was billed by his progressive detractors as some profound mystery, notwithstanding the senator’s frequent, soundbite-friendly efforts to explain precisely what he would back. In July, Manchin signed his name to a letter along with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer affirming that he could support no more than $1.5 trillion for new programs, ranging from climate-change initiatives to the expansion of Medicare. The letter was not made public, but Manchin didn’t keep his preferences a secret for long. “I’m willing to sit down and work through that 1.5 [trillion] and get our priorities,” he told reporters on the steps of the Capitol in late September. If his fellow Democrats wanted a bigger bill, the senator advised them to break up Build Back Better. “I think there’s many ways to get to where they want to,” he advised, “just not everything at one time.”
The clarity of his remarks notwithstanding, reporters spent the next several weeks interrogating him in the effort to uncover the penumbras of meaning within the word “no.” In the end, Democrats didn’t take Manchin’s advice. They would devote the next four months to testing Manchin’s sincerity, culminating in a vote for a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better that was nevertheless priced out at $1.75 trillion in spending over a decade. Manchin, it turns out, wasn’t bluffing or being insincere. Democrats called a vote, and the bill died.
Manchin’s party has not moved on. In late December, Joe Biden still contended there was “a possibility” that Build Back Better could pass. And if it couldn’t, progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal insisted that much of the bill could be implemented by presidential fiat. And now, even the speaker of the House has declared her refusal to give up the ghost.
All this prolongs the Democratic grieving process while fanning the flames of internecine conflict ahead of what promises to be a bruising midterm election cycle for the party in power even without the infighting. But what else can they do? As a political argument, the next best thing to touting Build Back Better’s success would be to galvanize progressive voters behind a strategy to avenge its martyrdom. To wave the bill’s bloody tunic, however, would be to indict its murderers, all of whom are Democrats themselves. So, the party seems to have settled on a third way that is as delusional as it is pathetic: insist the bill isn’t dead at all. It’s only resting.