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Joe Manchin negotiated Build Back Better with Joe Manchin

Manchin went from backing $4 trillion in infrastructure spending to rejecting his own plan.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., certainly drives a hard bargain. After months of negotiations on the Build Back Better Act, he’s rejected every iteration his fellow Democrats have put forward. Now Manchin is reportedly rejecting the plan he himself presented to President Joe Biden last month.

Last month, Manchin pitched a $1.8 trillion framework to Biden that “included universal prekindergarten for 10 years, an expansion of Obamacare and hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change,” according to The Washington Post. But that counteroffer was a nonstarter for the president’s team in part because it would have nixed an extension of the expanded child tax credit and several other progressive priorities.

Manchin is reportedly rejecting the plan he himself presented to President Joe Biden last month.

Manchin then shocked the White House and his fellow senators when he said on Fox News that he wouldn’t be supporting the bill. The sharp rebuff from the White House apparently got to Manchin because The Washington Post reported over the weekend that “the West Virginia Democrat has made clear that he does not currently support advancing even that offer following a breakdown in negotiations between Manchin and the White House right before Christmas.”

That’s about par for the course for Manchin, who for all his pledges of straight talk has sent a bevy of mixed messages over the last year. While Democratic leadership has been trying to get Manchin to a “yes” on the cornerstone of Biden’s economic agenda, Manchin has spent most of that time publicly negotiating with himself.

Compare Manchin’s current position to where he started off in 2021, ahead of Biden’s inauguration. He told a local news program that he was game to spend big to invest in this country, according to NBC News:

"The most important thing? Do infrastructure. Spend $2-, $3-, $4 trillion over a 10-year period on infrastructure," Manchin told Inside West Virginia Politics. "You want to put everybody back to work? A lot of people have lost their jobs and those jobs aren't coming back. They need a place to work."

While he proved to be a headache while negotiating the American Rescue Plan, Manchin was still on board with spending big well into last spring. He told Axios in March that “the infrastructure bill can be big — as much as $4 trillion — as long as it's paid for with tax increases. He said he'll start his bargaining by requiring the package be 100% paid for.”

Manchin later that month said the infrastructure package was “going to be enormous” and reiterated his call for it to be paid for in full with new taxes. That clashed with his desire to have the bill be bipartisan as well, but he still barreled ahead in negotiations with his GOP counterparts.

By mid-April, Manchin was still insisting he could support up to $4 trillion in a spending package.

By mid-April, Manchin was still insisting he could support up to $4 trillion in a spending package. “We’re going to do whatever it takes. If it takes $4 trillion, I’d do $4 trillion, but we have to pay for it,” he said.

But as negotiations with Republicans yielded a much smaller counteroffer, Manchin was beginning to suggest he would want to focus on so-called hard infrastructure — like roads, bridges and other construction projects — over the “human” infrastructure in Biden’s plan. But as late as June, he was still on the record as being in favor of the social programs in the Build Back Better Act.

Despite initially supporting what would become the “two-track” strategy, Manchin really began changing his tune over the summer. As the bipartisan infrastructure deal came closer to being locked in, Manchin started to both seem less committed to the unilateral bill the Senate Democrats were putting together and vacillate on how much spending he'd sign off on, as The Washington Post noted in a November analysis:

On June 27, Manchin told ABC News that he would be willing to spend up to $2 trillion on Biden’s reconciliation plan, as long as it did not add to the national debt. On July 1, he told Fox News that he would never support $4 trillion to 6 trillion in new spending.

Fourteen days after Democrats unveiled their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, Manchin privately set a top line of $1.5 trillion for the plan with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). But days later, Manchin did not immediately shoot down the $3.5 trillion top line.

“Well, they’re saying it’s all paid for,” Manchin told CBS News on Aug. 1 when asked about the $3.5 trillion proposal. “Now, if it’s all paid for, you look at it in a different light, okay? There’s a lot of great things in there.”

By the end of September, Manchin had gone public with his demand to Schumer that the bill cost no more than $1.5 trillion. Progressives in the House were insisting that the bipartisan infrastructure bill only be passed simultaneously with the Build Back Better Act, partially in fear of Manchin tanking the bill altogether. In the face of this gridlock, in late October, Biden and House leadership put forward a $1.75 trillion package as a compromise.

The House passed the $1 trillion bipartisan deal days later. But even then, Manchin was unwilling to accept the reductions made in the bill, calling them “shell games” and “budget gimmicks.” He continued to insist on both means-testing programs like the child tax credit and stripping out paid family leave. Just before Manchin shut the door on winning his vote, Democrats were realizing that any hopes of passing the Build Back Better Act before Christmas were gone.

In the end, Manchin got most of what he wanted from Democrats in his summer list of demands, according to an Associated Press analysis. But that apparently wasn’t good enough. The senator told reporters Jan. 4 that there’s “no negotiation going on at this time.” He said he might — might! — be open to passing just some of the climate and health care-related provisions from the package, but even that feels like a long shot.

In the past, I’ve praised Manchin’s willingness (compared to some of his colleagues) to say what he wants in a bill and what his redlines are. But he’s being a sore winner here. Nobody — including Biden — has managed to shape the most recent version of the bill more than Manchin. And he’s still acting as though his colleagues are refusing to be reasonable.

If the White House's and progressives’ accusations of negotiating in bad faith were so hurtful to Manchin, then he should prove his offers are on the level. At bare minimum, Manchin should take the “W” and see his framework as the new starting point for the Build Back Better Act. He would also need to accept some of the changes the House will need to make it palatable, especially those related to housing and paid family leave. His only alternative is to prove his critics right and admit that not even his own proposals had a chance of winning his support.