President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate and social spending plan is staggering into the New Year, with no clear prognosis for how to get it through the Senate.
Senate Democrats don’t know if the bill needs to be completely revamped to win Sen. Joe Manchin’s support. They don’t know when it’s going to come to the Senate floor for a vote. They don’t know how close Biden is to a deal with Manchin. They don’t know how to keep the child tax credit from expiring at the end of the year.
Biden himself said — in a statement on Thursday night that name-checked Manchin three times — that work with the West Virginia senator will continue in the coming days and weeks. Biden said Manchin still supports a $1.7 trillion spending level and that he needs more time to finalize negotiations.
Manchin responded dryly to Biden’s statement on Friday in a brief interview: “The president put out a statement. It’s his statement, not mine.” The two spoke several times this week.
Meanwhile, Democrats said privately they fear they’re no closer than where they started the week, with Manchin again questioning the entire structure of the legislation. And for the first time, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday appeared to acknowledge the bill wouldn’t pass this month: “The president requested more time to continue his negotiations.”
The impending holiday recess failed to create pressure for a deal, despite Schumer’s hopes of a Christmas breakthrough. The forthcoming expiration of the expanded child tax credit didn’t move Manchin either.
In fact, this week the key moderate said he dislikes using 10-year financing for a one-year extension of the child tax credit, which has thrown the entire structure of the legislation into question. Extending the benefit longer would make the bill more expensive, and Manchin has capped his support at $1.7 trillion. That could mean cutting other programs to keep in place one of Democrats’ most tangible achievements this year.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said of the expanded tax credit: “I thought we had resolved that.”
“I thought we were down to about four areas where there were still significant open issues. But until the deal has landed, anyone can open up anything,” Warren said.
Now Democrats are staring at an impending two-week break with zero momentum on the party-line legislation, which pours $1.7 trillion into climate action, education, health care and child care and is financed with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. While congressional aides have continued to work behind the scenes with the Senate parliamentarian to ready the bill for the Senate floor, some staffers have raised the possibility the bill may have to be reenvisioned with fewer programs that run longer to satisfy Manchin.
Senate Democrats said in interviews they weren’t sure whether the bill just needed a few tweaks or a full rebuild to get the required 50 Democratic votes to send it back to the House. Still, no one is viewing the current impasse as fatal to the overall effort to pass the bill.
"If he were going to say no, he would have said no by now,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally.
Biden’s Thursday statement isolated Manchin as the main impediment to action, a blunt recognition of the state of play. Manchin said earlier this week he’s just one of 50 senators, but his colleagues are deferring to Manchin and Biden.
“I thought we had gotten a framework that was a structure he could support. That might not be the case any longer,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I legitimately don’t know what the path forward is.”
The White House says things are still on track, citing the party’s accomplishments thus far this year and the positive jolt the spending bill could deliver for the economy.
"We feel positive about the work we’ve done this week with a number of Senators, including Senator Manchin. Together, we have delivered historic legislative achievements and economic growth this year. And before each one succeeded, there was never a shortage of headlines about deadlines missed or negotiations continuing," said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. "We look forward to doing the same with Build Back Better as soon as possible."
Nonetheless, there’s been less and less caucus-wide discussion of the legislation as the week has dragged on. With the spending bill stalled out, Senate Democrats tried to revamp their political strategy after a fast-paced year that started with a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue law and a huge bipartisan infrastructure bill.
As January nears, many Democrats hoped for a breakthrough on elections reform, yet Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Manchin both oppose changing the Senate rules to allow that to pass by a simple majority, even as several other Democrats have changed their positions in recent days.
Senate Democrats huddled with a rules expert during their Friday caucus lunch, a reflection of the party’s shifting priorities in the face of the precarious position of the spending bill.
“We have kind of waxed and waned [on the spending bill]. Obviously the focus right now is on whether there’s a way to preserve the spirit of the Senate rules but still get a change” to address elections reform, said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). He said everyone needs “a bit of a breathing space on Build Back Better.”
Democrats’ best chance of success before the holiday break now lies with confirming a large parcel of Biden’s nominees. Those nominees could be returned to committee when the year ends, and Democrats view that fight as more winnable than trying to jam through the spending bill.
“I feel like we’re close. But there’s a sense that pushing it off until after the new year makes sense. Because then we can get some more tweaks and we can get these ambassadors and other nominees through,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Marianne LeVine and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.