WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden appeared determined Tuesday to return to the negotiating table with Sen. Joe Manchin, the holdout Democrat who effectively tanked the party's signature $2 trillion domestic policy initiative with his own jarring year-end announcement.
Biden, responding to reporters' questions at the White House, joked that he holds no grudges against the conservative West Virginia senator whose rejection of the social services and climate change bill stunned Washington just days ago.
Instead, the president spoke passionately about the families that would benefit from the Democrats' ambitious, if now highly uncertain, plan to pour billions of dollars into child care, health care and other services.
“Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done,” Biden said.
The president's off-the-cuff remarks constitute his first public statement as Democrats struggle to pick up the pieces from Manchin's announcement over the weekend that he would not support the bill, as is. Manchin essentially crushed Biden's sweeping policy measure in the 50-50 Senate, siding with all Republicans who oppose the bill.
Biden spoke forcefully of the economic pressures that strip away the “dignity of a parent” trying to pay the bills, and the assistance millions could receive from the federal government with the legislation. He also said his package would help ease inflationary pressures and pointed to analyses suggesting it would boost the economy.
“I want to get things done,” Biden said. “I still think there’s a possibility of getting Build Back Better done.”
But the Democrats face serious questions over whether the $2 trillion initiative can be refashioned to win his crucial vote or the party will be saddled with a devastating defeat.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was set to assemble Senate Democrats later Tuesday for a private virtual caucus meeting to discuss next steps.
Schumer vowed Monday that the chamber would vote early in the new year on Biden’s “Build Back Better Act” as it now stands so every senator “has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television." That was a biting reference to Manchin's sudden TV announcement against the bill on Sunday.
But Manchin and his party are so far apart, his relationships so bruised after months of failed talks, it’s unclear how they even get back to the negotiating table, let alone revive the sprawling more than 2,100-page social services and climate change bill.
Biden and Manchin spoke later Sunday, according to a person familiar with the call, first reported by Politico. It was cordial and respectful, said the person who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The setback has thrown Biden’s signature legislative effort into deep doubt at a critical time, closing out the end of the president’s first year and ahead of congressional midterm elections when the Democrats’ slim hold on Congress is at risk.
Coupled with solid Republican opposition, Manchin's vote is vital on this and other initiatives, including the Democrats' priority voting rights legislation that Schumer also promised would come to an early vote.
Steeped in the politics of a state that Biden lost decisively to Donald Trump, Manchin has little to gain from aligning too closely with fellow Democrats, raising fresh questions over whether he still has a place in the party.
In a radio interview Monday, he reiterated his position that the social and environment bill has far too much government spending — on child care, health care and other programs — without enough restrictions on incomes or work requirements.
But the lifelong Democrat was less clear when asked if the party still has room for him — describing himself as "fiscally responsible and socially compassionate.”
Manchin said: “Now, if there’s no Democrats like that then they have to push me wherever they want.”
After months of talks with the White House and fellow Democrats, he lashed out at hard-line tactics against him by those he said “just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.”
While Manchin has said he cannot explain the bill to constituents in West Virginia, a union representing coal miners, including some of the nearly 12,000 from his home state, put out a statement urging the lawmaker to “revisit his opposition” to the package
Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, outlined the ways the package would benefit union members, including those in West Virginia, which is the most coal-dependent state in the country.
Some of those provisions include language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits received by victims of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung. The bill would also provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields, potentially employing miners who have lost their jobs, according to the union.
The next steps remain highly uncertain for the president and his party, with Congress on recess for the holiday break.
The White House appeared to take interest in Manchin's preference for a reimagined bill that would tackle a few top priorities, for longer duration, rather than the multifaceted and far-reaching House-passed version.
But it will be extraordinarily difficult for progressive and centrist Democrats to rebuild trust to launch a fresh round of negotiations having devoted much of Biden's first year in office to what is now essentially a collapsed effort.
The sweeping package is among the biggest of its kind ever considered in Congress, unleashing billions of dollars to help American families nationwide — nearly all paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
For families with children, it would provide free pre-school and child care aid. There are subsidies for health insurance premiums, lower prescription drug costs and expanded Medicaid access in states that do not yet provide it. The bill would start a new hearing aid program for seniors. And it includes more than $500 billion to curb carbon emissions, a figure considered the largest federal expenditure ever to combat climate change.
A potential new deadline for Biden and his party comes with the expiration of an expanded child tax credit that has been sending up to $300 monthly directly to millions of families’ bank accounts. If Congress fails to act, the money won't arrive in January.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck an optimistic chord at an event Monday in her San Francisco district. “This will happen,” she said. “I’m not deterred at all.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Colleen Long contributed to this report.