Manchin won't commit to backing his party's $1.75T social spending bill

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Joe Manchin knocked President Joe Biden’s agenda further off its axis on Monday, refusing to endorse a White House-blessed $1.75 trillion social spending bill framework.

The West Virginia Democrat also rejected House Democrats’ gambit to win his vote, which involves holding up a bipartisan infrastructure bill he helped write. He told reporters at an unusual news conference that he would not be pressured into supporting his party's more progressive social spending bill and decried the “shell games, budget gimmicks” used in writing it.

Perhaps most perilously for the House progressives whom he criticized for holding up the $550 billion infrastructure bill, Manchin made clear that despite his warm statements about the White House's framework, he can’t be viewed as an automatic yes just because he’s a Democrat.

“I'm open to supporting a final bill that helps move our country forward. But I'm equally open to voting against a bill that hurts our country,” Manchin said, citing inflation and budget deficits as his main concerns. Democrats have linked their infrastructure and social spending bills as part of a strategic attempt to unite their disparate wings to advance major legislative goals this year.

Manchin’s statement amounts to a major gut check for Biden and his party's fragile majorities, which require lockstep unity in the 50-50 Senate and near-total support in the House. Democrats need Manchin’s vote to pass the rest of Biden’s climate and social spending agenda, but Manchin’s only real demand on Monday was that the House immediately pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

As of Monday morning, many House Democrats projected they could vote this week on infrastructure and the social policy measure, passed using budget reconciliation rules that allow it to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. That timeline could slip past this week after Manchin's press conference, which also appeared to embolden House moderates.

In a uniquely fast statement released after Manchin spoke, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden aides “remain confident that the plan will gain Senator Manchin’s support.”

The infrastructure bill has twice now stalled out in the House, infuriating moderate senators who wrote it. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were both top negotiators on that legislation, leading House progressives to balk at passing it without ironclad commitments on the climate and social spending bill.

“This is not how the United States Congress should operate … the political games have to stop,” Manchin said. “There are some House Democrats who say they can’t support this infrastructure package until they get my commitment on the reconciliation legislation.”

Describing it as “time to vote” on infrastructure in the House, Manchin made clear that his commitment to support the social spending plan is not yet forthcoming: “I will not support a reconciliation package that expands social programs and irresponsibly adds to our $29 trillion in national debt.”

The party-line package is paid for with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, but Manchin questioned whether that math would really add up. The bill, which is still being reworked to add prescription drug reform, has not received a score from the Congressional Budget Office.

“This is a recipe for economic crisis,” Manchin said of his party's hope for indefinite extension of programs established in its social spending bill. “Compromise is not good enough for a lot of my colleagues in Congress. It’s all or nothing. And their position doesn’t seem to change unless we agree to everything.”

Manchin took no questions after his remarks, other than to say he wouldn’t negotiate in public anymore. He’s recently raised doubts about adding paid leave and expanding Medicare to the social spending bill, comments that led to paid leave's omission from last week’s framework and Medicare's limitation to hearing aides. As it's currently written, the bill expands early education, spends hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change and extends Democrats' boosted child tax credit a year.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on CNN that House Democrats are still prepared to vote on both bills in the coming days and chalked up Manchin's statement this way: “Sometimes tempers get a little flared toward the end of negotiations. I hope that's all this is.”

But it’s not just Manchin who has issues. In the House, a small group of moderate Democrats are privately warning they aren’t ready to back Biden’s broader bill on the floor this week.

Between four and eight centrists have raised concerns to leadership about either process or policy on the $1.75 trillion bill, according to one source close to the talks. Their issues range from fierce opposition to immigration reform as well as a proposed methane emissions fee to a demand that the bill is fully scored by independent budget analysts and that it can clear the Senate's byzantine budget rules.

Senior Democrats believe they can resolve several of those concerns this week. On the scoring, for instance, leadership plans to compile data from the Congressional Budget Office, Joint Committee on Taxation and the Department of Treasury to make centrists comfortable without a full CBO score.

Immigration is by far the most volatile issue in the House, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can only afford to lose three Democrats on the final vote. At least three Latino Democrats have threatened to oppose any social spending bill that doesn't include immigration policy. But a much larger group of moderates — including many of the caucus’s most vulnerable members — have said they would tank the bill if contentious immigration provisions are included.

In addition, few Democrats want to support a bill without prescription drug reform. Democrats in the House and Senate are nearing an agreement on adding compromise language to the social spending bill that would empower Medicare to negotiate some prices down.

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