Joe Manchin pushes back on party-switching story — but he's still a major threat to Biden's agenda

Joe Manchin pushes back on party-switching story — but he's still a major threat to Biden's agenda
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in 2017, Wikimedia Commons

Sen. Joe Manchin could be signaling that he's willing to President Joe Biden's entire agenda hostage, according to journalist David Corn, by having associates spread the word that he's got a plan to leave the Democratic Party if his ransom demands for the big reconciliation bill on Biden's plan are not met. It can entirely be a bluff on his part, and since the outlet reporting it is Mother Jones, that's definitely a possibility.

For the record, Manchin told reporters after the story came out "It's bullshit," and "I have no control of rumors." On the other hand, he might very well have control of rumors and whether he has someone drop word a detailed plan for his exit into a journalist's ear. He's made threats like this before, like in 2018 when he was telling colleagues he was going to retire. On the other hand, Joe Manchin is an asshole.

Corn reports that sources say Manchin is threatening to leave the Democratic Party if Biden and 269 other Democrats in Congress "do not agree to his demand to cut the size of the social infrastructure bill from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion. […] Manchin has said that if this were to happen, he would declare himself an 'American Independent.'" He has also plotted a two-step "exit strategy": first, a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer removing himself from leadership and if that doesn't get the concessions he's demanding, he'd change his voter registration to independent. Then, presumably, he'd hold out on a decision to either caucus with Democrats or with Republicans, the latter decision would make Mitch McConnell majority leader.

Whether or not this is a possibility, he has been making obnoxious demands on Biden. Manchin has supposedly come up from what he's insisted was his ceiling of $1.5 trillion for the already negotiated-down package—progressives said $6 trillion was necessary to fulfill Biden's agenda, but dropped that down to $3.5 trillion. Now he's supposedly willing to go $1.75 trillion. That's on the condition that every program be means tested, "everything from paid family medical leave to elder and disabled care." Manchin's insistence that the continued child tax credit payments be both means-tested and subject to work requirements had already made news.

That's not flying with Manchin's Democratic colleagues in the Senate, like Sherrod Brown, another red state Democrat who has never felt the need to punish working people in order to keep his seat. Brown told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent that he had a long talk with Manchin, reminding him that the child tax credit payments are helping both of their constituents. "It's dropped the child poverty rate by 40 percent in West Virginia and Ohio—I made that case to Joe," Brown told Sargent. "Why change something that's working so well?"

"He was listening," Brown said of Manchin, and maybe he was. Brown said he would work with Manchin on potential phase outs of the child tax credit for high earners, but that Manchin's proposal to end payments for households making $60,000 annually and add work requirements would set the nation's families back, and punish people. "He has seen a number of families, as I have, in Appalachia and everywhere I guess, where parents couldn't take care of their kids and grandparents stepped in," Brown told me. "A work requirement makes no sense for grandparents." Manchin "emphasized that the money should follow the child, which of course it should," Brown continued. "I think he was listening."

We'll see. As for the larger package, here's where things stand as of Wednesday: two years of free community college is likely entirely out of the package. The tax credits included in the COVID-19 relief plan to make health insurance more affordable will be shortened, as would the duration of the expansion of CTC monthly payments, possibly to a year. Biden is now looking at around $2 trillion for the package.

Manchin's means testing for the child tax credit, one source told CNN, would stay in, though it might look more like Brown's phase out for higher incomes than Manchin's harsh and unrealistic $60,000 limit. Biden told lawmakers that providing an expansion of home healthcare for the elderly and disabled would be cut from an already skinny $400 billion to less than $250 billion. He talked about the expansion of Medicare to include vision, dental, and hearing care as a "pilot project," suggesting that it will be scaled significantly back from what lawmakers have envisioned. A paid leave benefit would be shrunk drastically, from 12 week of leave down to four.

Biden has been meeting with House progressives, along with House conservative Democrats, Manchin, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and seems to be leaning with the progressives' argument that all of these programs are worthy, and doing most of them for a shorter duration is preferable to doing too little. "I think he is with us that we need to invest in as many of those transformational areas as possible, even if it means for some of them a shorter amount of time," Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal told Roll Call after meeting with Biden Tuesday. On the CTC: "I don't think it will be as many years as we want," Jayapal said. "There was some pushback on having it be too short, so we'll see where that ends up."

What's entirely up in the air is the climate provisions in the bill, and how to meet the goal of cutting carbon emissions in half this decade when Manchin has nixed Biden's $150 billion "clean electricity performance program." That's the program Manchin has been supposedly working with Sen. Tina Smith from Minnesota on for months. He pulled the rug out from all that work, and from his colleague Sen. Smith, last week. He's not offered any alternatives.

"We have to continue to have these conversations and I can't point to anything specific that he's offered," Smith said of Manchin. Since he's not offering anything, one potential solution Democrats have returned to is the idea of a carbon tax, charging polluters for the greenhouse gas they emit. Manchin seems to also be ruling that out, telling reporters Tuesday that it is not on the table.

There's lots of encouraging talk from negotiators that they can have a "framework" for putting the reconciliation bill together by the end of the week. But who knows what else might be in store from Manchin. Or for that matter, Sinema. She's been suspiciously absent from the news lately.

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