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Joe Manchin puts White House's economic agenda in grave danger

All Democrats have to do to pass both tracks of their infrastructure plan is stick together. Joe Manchin appears to have a different plan in mind.

By any fair measure, September will be an extraordinarily busy time on Capitol Hill. Over the next few weeks, the tiny Democratic majority will try to prevent a government shutdown, raise the debt ceiling, tackle voting rights and consider a variety of expiring federal benefits programs.

But as a New York Times report noted, it's the Democrats' two-track infrastructure gambit that's likely to be the heaviest and most contested lift.

When congressional committees meet this week to begin formally drafting Democrats' ambitious social policy plan, they will be undertaking the most significant expansion of the nation's safety net since the war on poverty in the 1960s, devising legislation that would touch virtually every American's life, from conception to aged infirmity.

The first track of President Joe Biden's infrastructure vision — a bipartisan Senate package that invests in bridges, rail, and broadband — has cleared the upper chamber and is pending in the House. The second track is even more ambitious, and invests in everything from health care to education, climate to housing.

This second package can pass by way of the budget reconciliation process, which means it can circumvent a Republican filibuster. All Democrats have to do is stick together.

Of course, Democrats being Democrats, that's proving to be profoundly difficult.

Though the talks have been quietly unfolding behind the scenes, key Democratic policymakers have spent much of the last month working on an economic package designed to satisfy the party's many factions and constituencies. The haggling, not surprisingly, is ongoing.

In the House, where a small group of Democratic moderates recently launched a controversial hostage strategy, centrists unveiled a series of conditions they expect to be met before the economic bill passes, including a demand that most of the bill's spending be paid for.

All things considered, the conditions seemed modest and achievable. The Senate is a very different story.

Nearly six months ago, as the party's infrastructure plans took shape, Sen. Joe Manchin endorsed an "enormous" investment package and largely stuck with his party as Democrats incrementally advanced their plans.

Late last week, the West Virginian switched gears, announcing that he now supports hitting "the pause button" of undetermined length to the entire process. The conservative Democratic senator also wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed, insisting that he will not support at $3.5 trillion proposal.

The list of problems with Manchin's pitch isn't short. For example, the senator made repeated references to "inflation," which makes less sense than he seems to realize. He also referenced recent developments in Afghanistan, which hardly seem relevant to the domestic infrastructure debate.

Complicating matters further, the West Virginian endorsed the House passing the first track of the plan while pushing off consideration of the second, which would effectively guarantee the collapse of both bills.

But what I found especially amazing was Manchin's interest in a "pause." The fact remains that the process has already been slow, gradual, and methodical. Biden's first Oval Office meeting on infrastructure was in February, and Manchin publicly backed "enormous" investments a month later.

What's needed now isn't more pausing, it's more legislating.