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Democrats rally to keep Biden's Build Back Better agenda alive

Is an ambitious Build Back Better package on track to pass? No. Are the odds of success better than they were 72 hours ago? Yes.
Image: Joe Manchin
Senator Joe Manchin pauses during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 28, 2021.Stefani Reynolds / Pool via Reuters file

At different points over the last several months, the Democrats' Build Back Better agenda has seen peaks and valleys. When the ambitious legislation passed the House shortly before Thanksgiving, for example, and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia seemed to endorse the party's timetable for a pre-Christmas Senate vote, it appeared the bill was on track to succeed.

Roughly 72 hours ago, however, when Manchin announced his opposition to the package, the prospects collapsed.

What remained unclear was whether Congress' most conservative Democrat was saying no to this bill or saying no to any possible iteration of the BBB agenda. Was Manchin's declaration the latest step in the negotiations process or the final step? Were the talks ongoing or did they end?

As these questions lingered, Senate Democrats held a special conference meeting last night to discuss the party's plans. As of this point yesterday, Manchin wasn't even sure whether he'd participate in the discussion.

The good news for Democrats is that Manchin joined the conversation. The better news for Democrats is that the door on Build Back Better is not yet closed. NBC News reported overnight:

Joe Manchin joined fellow Senate Democrats for a special caucus meeting Tuesday night about next steps for the Build Back Better Act, just two days after he said he could not support President Joe Biden's signature legislation. Multiple sources familiar with the call confirmed that Manchin, D-W.Va., attended.

According to the reporting, Manchin spoke early on, reiterated his BBB concerns, and listened as others said their piece. He also apparently still supports rolling back the Republicans' Trump-era tax breaks, which is a fine idea his Democratic colleagues would gladly endorse — if only Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema would go along.

It was at this same 90-minute meeting last night that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly told his members, "I know we are all frustrated at this outcome. However, we are not giving up on BBB. Period. We won't stop working on it until we pass a bill."

It's possible the New York Democrat was sharing some wishful thinking. Or perhaps he thought some "rally the troops" rhetoric would lift spirits during a difficult time. Either way, Schumer did not sound like a party leader who considers the Build Back Better legislation dead.

A few hours earlier, President Joe Biden sounded a similar note, telling reporters, "Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done" on BBB.

Shortly before that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also told reporters, "We will not let this opportunity pass. And we will make that case and I have confidence that Sen. Manchin cares about our country and that at some point, very soon, we can take up the legislation. I'm not deterred at all."

Around the same time, House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, who effectively said a day earlier that she was done talking to Manchin, reached out to the West Virginian directly to explore legislative details. The Washington Democrat spoke to The Washington Post's Greg Sargent, who said Jayapal "did seem to open the door to a way forward, though it's a twisted and murky path."

All of these developments came on the heels of Biden and Manchin speaking directly and agreeing to continue talking about the legislation.

It's important not to exaggerate the prospects. I'm not saying BBB is on track to succeed. Failure remains a distinct possibility. I am, however, saying that the odds of success are better than they were 72 hours ago.

Last week, Manchin put a decent $1.75 trillion blueprint on the table, which the White House has not rejected. The negotiations that appeared to have collapsed are now ongoing again. If the legislation were a patient, it's fair to say it has a pulse — which was imperceptible on Sunday morning.

As a House Democratic aide told NBC News, "Sometimes things have to blow up to come back together."

Update: Politico reported this morning, "[F]or the first time since Manchin blew up everything, we are hearing some notes of optimism from Democratic senators."