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As Joe Manchin rejects Build Back Better, what happens now?

Was yesterday the latest step in the negotiations process or the final step? Are the talks ongoing or are they now over? No one seems certain.

Democratic officials have spent the better part of 2021 trying to advance the cornerstone of the party's domestic policy agenda. The Build Back Better package was the foundation of President Joe Biden's campaign — a campaign in which he had the strongest performance of any challenger since FDR — and polls continue to show broad public support for the agenda.

A single hurdle remained: The party needed to figure out a way to get conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on board.

Since the summer, the West Virginian has been at the center of lengthy negotiations. Manchin sought and received concessions. The process was delayed, repeatedly, at his request. He participated in countless hours of talks, meetings, briefings, and strategy sessions. Democratic leaders genuinely believed that the process would eventually result in a breakthrough if they heard Manchin out, answered his questions, and adapted the legislation to meet his concerns.

That is, until yesterday morning. As NBC News reported:

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday that he will not vote for President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act, deflating Democrats' hopes of passing the nearly $2 trillion legislation to transform the nation's social safety net in the new year.

"This is a no on this legislation," the senator said during a Fox News appearance. "I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there."

As the dust settles, let's take stock.

The wrong decision, announced the wrong way

After Democrats worked with Manchin in good faith for several months, he didn't just kneecap them yesterday, he did so without class. Instead of picking up the phone and letting Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer know about his decision, Manchin waited until yesterday morning — less than an hour before his on-air appearance — to have an aide let party leaders know.

He then announced his opposition to the bill on Fox News — a network closely affiliated with Republican politics — after reportedly turning down a phone call from the White House.

Manchin's rationale is bizarre

Complicating the process is the fact that Manchin's reasons for rejecting the BBB package don't stand up well to scrutiny. The West Virginian raised concerns about the deficit, despite the fact that the deficit is shrinking and the Build Back Better plan is fully paid for. He also complained about inflation, despite the fact that the legislation wouldn't make inflation worse, and would likely help consumers pay for key costs.

A New York Times headline yesterday said Biden "must bridge the disconnect between Senator Joe Manchin's concerns and economic evidence." It was a subtle way of acknowledging that the conservative Democrat is opposed to the party's bill for reasons that appear to be wrong.

A furious White House

For months, the president and his team have treated Manchin with kid gloves. That ended yesterday. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued an unusually pointed written statement after the senator's on-air appearance, which not only highlighted Manchin's errors of fact and judgment, but also effectively accused him of treachery. From the statement:

"On Tuesday of this week, Senator Manchin came to the White House and submitted — to the President, in person, directly — a written outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the same size and scope as the President's framework, and covered many of the same priorities. While that framework was missing key priorities, we believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all. Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground. If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator's colleagues in the House and Senate."

The unmistakably angry tone surprised many, but it's likely the White House decided to try a new posture since the old one wasn't bringing Manchin any closer to a deal.

It's unclear at this point whether the door is open or closed

The conservative Democrat said, "This is a no on this legislation." But saying no to "this" bill — the current legislative package, exactly as it exists — is not the same thing as saying no to every possible iteration of the bill.

As of last week, Manchin was on board with a 10-year, $1.75 trillion package. Does he still agree with himself? Could party leaders craft a 10-year, $1.75 trillion bill that he'd support? Was yesterday the latest step in the negotiations process or the final step? Are the talks ongoing or are they now over?

As frustrating as this may sound, no one seems to know. I heard from knowledgeable Capitol Hill sources yesterday and they agreed that even other Democratic senators can't answer these questions with confidence.

For now, party leaders aren't giving up, at least not yet. Watch this space.